10/26/2005 11:00PM

Wheel of fortune turns Griffin's way

Email
Horsephotos
Merv Griffin, 80, has been a Thoroughbred owner for more than a decade. He has high hopes for Stevie Wonderboy (above), the Del Mar Futurity winner, in Saturday's BC Juvenile.

Merv Griffin has won 15 Emmy Awards, had a No. 1 song, and created two of the most popular game shows in television history. A victory in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Juvenile with Stevie Wonderboy would trump it all.

"The Emmys are wonderful; there's nothing to match the winner's circle," Griffin said in a recent telephone interview.

A lifelong fan of horse racing, and an owner of Thoroughbreds for more than a decade, Griffin appears to have his best horse to date in Stevie Wonderboy. Winner of the Del Mar Futurity, Stevie Wonderboy looks like a serious contender in Saturday's $1.59 million Juvenile at Belmont Park. Certainly no horse trained any better this week at Belmont Park than the strapping chestnut son of Stephen Got Even.

"This is some big, awesome horse. I'm very excited," said Griffin, who sang 1950's No. 1 single, "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts," created the popular game shows "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy," and hosted a midday talk show for 25 years.

Griffin, 80, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where his father took him to Bay Meadows. Griffin said he got to watch Seabiscuit run twice. When he moved to New York to do his television talk show, Griffin lived on a farm near Far Hills, N.J.

When Griffin returned to Southern California, he bought a 40-acre piece of property in La Quinta, Calif., and got involved in owning Arabian horses, which he found to be a losing proposition.

"We were paying $200,000 for broodmares from Poland," Griffin said. "Then one day you woke up and your horse was worth $12."

Griffin switched over to Thoroughbreds and has been searching for that big horse ever since. Before Stevie Wonderboy, his two most successful horses have been Cee's Irish and Skipaslew. Cee's Irish has won 4 of 15 starts, including three listed stakes, and has earned $423,085. Skipaslew, a son of Skip Away, won the 2004 Golden Gate Derby and was briefly on the Triple Crown trail before being sidelined.

Griffin had several trainers in Southern California, including Ron McAnally, Eduardo Inda, and Mike Mitchell, before hooking up with Doug O'Neill, who trains Cee's Irish, Skipaslew, and Stevie Wonderboy.

"I saw him on an interview," Griffin said. "I said, 'I like that guy.' He loves horses, he seemed kind to them - that's my kind of trainer. Ever since I've been with Doug it's been uphill."

Griffin estimates that since 2004, he has been to the winner's circle 18 times.

Griffin is an involved owner who likes to have conference calls with his assistant, Ronnie Ward, farm manager Don Rhodes, and O'Neill. He was very involved in the decision not to give Stevie Wonderboy another race in between the Sept. 7 Del Mar Futurity and the Breeders' Cup.

"He didn't need another race," Griffin said. "We realize we might set a record with 52 days off between races, but he seems to like that track from his workout."

"It's a great experience to be on his team," said O'Neill, whose brother Dennis picked out Stevie Wonderboy at the Fasig-Tipton 2-year-olds in training sales in February. "He's a very involved owner; he very much enjoys the whole process of strategizing. My brother had eight or 10 horses he liked, he talked to Merv, and they narrowed it down to four or five, and [Stevie Wonderboy] happened to be one of the ones they bought."

Stevie Wonderboy was beaten in his first starts, but then won his maiden at Del Mar by four lengths and the Grade 2 Del Mar Futurity by five lengths. Griffin was home sick the day Stevie Wonderboy won the Del Mar Futurity, but he perked up in a hurry when the colt rallied six wide in the stretch and drew off for the win.

"It was amazing," Griffin said. "I thought when the race was over, 'I got another Secretariat.' He likes to hang around the outside bend, then all of a sudden there's the stretch and there he goes."

Griffin named Stevie Wonderboy for the Grammy Award-winning singer Stevie Wonder, who appeared on Griffin's talk show when he was 17 years old.

"I always remember Stevie singing on my show, and I've always been a great fan of his," Griffin said. "He's been very quiet for a while, and at the same time as Stevie Wonderboy comes along he's got another album coming out and it's getting great press."

As much as Griffin thinks about winning Saturday's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he can't help but dream ahead to next spring and the Kentucky Derby.

"This is the dream," Griffin said. "The next dream is May 6. We're going to break that Juvenile hex."