11/02/2005 12:00AM

What will 'Stevie' do for an encore?

In the winner's circle with the connections of Juvenile winner Stevie Wonderboy: from left, owner Merv Griffin, jockey Garrett Gomez, and trainer Doug O'Neill.

ARCADIA, Calif. - On Thursday night of Breeders' Cup Week, two days before he was due to saddle Stevie Wonderboy in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Doug O'Neill was quietly dozing through the waning scenes of "Spamalot" at New York's Shubert Theater when he became vaguely aware that attention was turning his way.

"It was way past my bedtime," O'Neill said, "and as funny as it was, I was having trouble staying awake. Then they came to the part where they announce that the Holy Grail has been discovered under a seat in the audience. It was mine. But when they saw me, they switched to the woman sitting in front of me. I guess they thought I might not be much fun, and they were probably right. But that seat - B101 - I'll never forget it."

As it turned out, O'Neill was sitting on the prize after all. His brush with brave Sir Robin and the other loonies of "Spamalot" was only the beginning of a series of unforgettable Breeders' Cup moments, climaxed by Stevie Wonderboy's victory over Henny Hughes in a smart, fast renewal of the Juvenile.

And while O'Neill may not be able to recite the air speed velocity of an African swallow, or trade jibes with the Knights Who Say Ni, he is ready, willing, and able to confront a Breeders' Cup Juvenile jinx that is every bit as fearsome as a killer rabbit in a cave.

From Chief's Crown in 1984 straight through to last year's winner, Wilko, BC Juvenile winners are 0-for-forever in the Kentucky Derby. O'Neill does not discount such bare facts, but he does have his theories about their universal application.

"I certainly don't claim to know everything about the past Juvenile winners, but I can only imagine that most of them were asked to go through a lot to get there," he said.

"We really haven't asked our colt to do a lot," O'Neill said. "That 46 half he worked at Belmont before the race looked more like a 49. We haven't asked him to do anything out of the ordinary, anything beyond his level of fitness."

Although O'Neill, 37, has been training since 1994, it has been only in the past few years that he has begun to evolve into the high-stakes world. As such, he acknowledges that his frame of reference may not be as comprehensive as that of some of his more famous colleagues.

"The beauty of training on the West Coast is that you are surrounded by guys like Ron McAnally and Bobby Frankel and their horses on an almost daily basis," O'Neill said. "If you're smart - and I think I'm at least half-smart - you kind of just close your mouth, watch, and listen.

"I haven't had a ton of special horses to know where this guy ranks, but he's the most naturally gifted horse I've ever been around," he said. "On a daily basis, being surrounded by claiming horses, I spend most of my time either keeping horses sound or trying to get them more sound. It's a little easier coming to the barn and having a horse like Stevie Wonderboy. I'm blessed to have about 15 or so 2-year-olds in my barn, and the difference between him and them is like night and day."

Big, young, and excessively talented Thoroughbreds always seem to have physical issues, and Stevie Wonderboy is no exception. O'Neill and his crew have coddled Stevie Wonderboy's hind end with deep heat treatments, magnetic therapies, and acupressure. Those gallops keep him happy.

"I'm not a big believer in fast workouts. I learned in the short time I worked for Doug Peterson," he said, referring to the trainer, now deceased, of Seattle Slew as a 4-year-old, "that strong gallops can get a horse just as fit. If you've seen this colt gallop, you know what I'm talking about."

Indeed, Stevie Wonderboy was a sight to behold on the morning before the race, as he galloped around the spacious Belmont main track. The first time past the stands, he was just one of several horses moving at a smooth, two-minute lick. By the time he came around again, though, he was reaching out, devouring ground, but the gait was still a gallop. A very scary gallop.

While holding court after Stevie Wonderboy's performance, owner Merv Griffin turned the postrace interview into one of his old talk-show segments, with O'Neill playing an Americanized version of Griffin's droll former sidekick, Arthur Treacher. While Griffin fizzed with joy, O'Neill calmly extolled the virtues of the colt, explaining how it was possible to go 52 days without running - the first 30 of those without a recorded workout - and still win a race of such magnitude.

Then, with little prompting, Griffin broke into "My Old Kentucky Home," a song of hope that unfortunately comes off like fingernails on a blackboard to a winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"Are we going to take another 52 days' rest or wait for the Derby?" Griffin asked, grilling O'Neill. "Where are we going? What are we going to do?"

O'Neill smiled and played it coy.

"I think we'll savor this one first," O'Neill said. "Once everything calms down, we'll figure out what to do between now and the first Saturday in May, if we get that lucky."