08/13/2008 12:00AM

Victim of a 'dangerous ballet'

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Ron McAnally was horizontal, left leg elevated as per doctor's orders, while trying to recall the last time a horse nailed him with such force.

"I was real young, just grooming horses for Reggie," McAnally began, referring to his uncle, Reggie Cornell. "We were some place back east, and Reggie had a filly named Evening Tune, by Eight Thirty, for Harry James and Betty Grable. Real nice filly, too. I went up to her in the stall from behind to kind of give her a hug, and she got me good. Kicked me high on the right leg."

Ouch, and now ouch again. Close to 60 years later, it still hurts like a sonofagun. McAnally has made the most of those intervening decades - earning a place in the racing Hall of Fame alongside his champions John Henry, Bayakoa, and Paseana - and as the all-time leading trainer in the history of Del Mar, he enjoys the status of approachable legend. But in the contest of Man vs. Beast (in this case the beast being a half-ton of spooked Thoroughbred wearing sharp aluminum shoes), the Beast still has the edge, and McAnally has the world-class hematoma to prove it.

The trainer was walking to his Del Mar barn early Sunday morning when he was laid out with a vicious kick from a riderless horse being ponied by someone who did not bother to stop after McAnally went down. As of Wednesday morning, neither horse nor rider had been identified.

"I was on the right side of the road, which is where you want to be to make sure you have a pony or a man between you and any horse coming toward you," McAnally said. "I didn't hear a thing behind me and then I heard, 'Watch out!' and they were right on top of me. It felt like I got hit with a sledgehammer."

McAnally went down, landing hard on his right hand in the process and setting off a real ruckus.

"It was right there in front of Jeff Mullins's office," McAnally said. "Mullins must have been at the track, but his dog was there" - that would be Ty - "and she jumped up and started barking. Poor thing. Must have scared her."

Several eyewitnesses rushed to McAnally's aid, including Jesus Camacho, one of Del Mar's official outriders who works mornings for several trainers with barns in that area.

"I saw him go down, but I didn't know who it was until I got to him, and I was so surprised it was Mr. McAnally," Camacho said. "I helped him stand up, and I could already see some blood."

McAnally made it to his own stable, but before long it was clear the wound was serious and a hospital visit was required. He had to return to the hospital Monday, then on Wednesday he saw an othropedic specialist to gauge the extent of the injuries beyond a deep and painful bruise that would take time to drain and heal. At 76, McAnally knew this damage would take longer to repair than the kick of long ago, and that both blood clots and infection were dangers. The prescription, in addition to antibiotics and painkillers, was to stay off his feet.

"I keep wondering why the boy didn't say anything until he was right on top of me," McAnally said. "And you know, when he yelled, that's what might have spooked the horse. There was plenty of room on that road for all three of us."

The dust had cleared and his dog had calmed down by the time Mullins got back to his barn.

"Yelling 'watch out' in a spot like that sounds like the same as hollering 'fore' when the ball already hit the guy in the back of the head," Mullins said.

Mullins recalled being kicked once in the face by a racehorse who was tied up, no less.

"You're around them all the time and you trust them," he said. "Some you don't trust, but sometimes they just get spooked and you're in the wrong place at the wrong time."

No kidding. Forget for a second about the perils of horse racing to jockeys, who have relatively brief but highly dangerous encounters with their mounts. Trainers, and their crews, are up close and personal around the clock, providing any number of opportunities for something to go wrong.

"My dad was struck in the head by a horse getting pinfired," said Dan Landers, McAnally's assistant and the son of the late veteran trainer Dale Landers. "The horse was tranquilized and dad had him twitched. Didn't matter. He scraped him right up the forehead, knocked him out cold."

John Shirreffs, just a few barns over, reacted to the news of McAnally's injury with a twinge in his left arm. It was fractured last February by a double-barreled kick from a horse in his barn at Hollywood Park.

"It's a dangerous ballet we do out here," Shirreffs said. "There's not much room for error. Still, it's the person holding the shank who bears a lot of the responsibility."

McAnally had to agree. And, typical of the breed, he couldn't wait to get back.

"At least with a broken arm John could still walk to work," McAnally said with a game grin. "I've got to stay off this or else."