01/29/2003 12:00AM

50 years on, Holthus still has the horsepower

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Bob Holthus is an Oaklawn Park institution, having won nine training titles and close to 800 races at the track, which opens for a 52-day meet Friday.

Holthus, who has trained here since 1953, will jump into the new meet head first. He has leading contenders in each of the three stakes scheduled for opening weekend, with Semifinal set to run in the $50,000 Dixie Belle on Friday, Cojet slated for the $50,000 Hot Springs on Saturday, and Alke for the $50,000 Mountain Valley on Sunday.

"I think we'll have a good meet," said Holthus, 68. "We should win around 20 races if everything goes right."

Last year, Holthus sent out 18 winners from 95 starters at Oaklawn to rank sixth in the standings. Of his wins, five came in stakes - more than any other trainer at the meet. This season, he should again be strong in the stakes ranks with horses like Cojet, winner of the $75,000 Colonel Power Handicap at Fair Grounds in his last start.

"He was very impressive," said Holthus. "He was kind of trapped behind horses and when a hole opened up he shot through there. It looked like at the eighth pole, Mountain General might catch him, but at the end he was drawing away from him. It was probably one of his better races."

Others of note in Holthus's 39-horse stable include Red n'Gold, who is training toward defense of her title in the $50,000 Pippin Feb. 15, and the 3-year-old colt Premier Rocket, a maiden winner in his last start at Churchill Downs. Alke, a 3-year-old son of Grand Slam, was second last out in the Grade 3, $100,000 Iroquois at Churchill Downs, Holthus, who is the all-time winningest trainer at Oaklawn, feels the quality of horses he has seen training for this meet is stronger than last year, and he looks for Steve Asmussen, the nation's leading trainer by wins last year, and Cole Norman, the two-time defending training champ here and third in the nation in wins last year, to duke it out for the top spot.

"You've got two of the top three trainers in the country with large stables here," said Holthus. "They're very competitive, and they run their horses where they belong, so we should see a good battle for leading trainer."

Norman, 34, has grown up respecting Holthus.

"He reminds me of my father," said Norman, son of the late trainer Gene Norman. "He's an awesome horseman, a straight up, forward guy. And anytime you need anything, you can go to him. He's a class act."

A soft-spoken gentleman with quick wit, Holthus is gracious in both victory and defeat. It's the kind of level-headedness that comes from years of experience in the sport. And, despite all his success, he remains unassuming. He said he still learns something new every day in racing.

"And you'd be surprised who you might learn it from," he quipped.

Holthus first ventured to Arkansas from his native Nebraska around Christmas in 1952.

"I vividly remember driving into Hot Springs," he said. "It was nice. I left Lincoln, Nebraska, and it was 10 below zero, and they had about a foot of snow on the ground, and I got here and it was 70 degrees."

For his first meet here in 1953, Holthus rented two stalls across the street from the track, which was commonplace at the time because there were only about 700 stalls on the grounds at Oaklawn.

"I didn't win a race," he said. "It was a 32-day meet, and if I'm not mistaken, 30 days of it was a muddy racetrack."

Holthus's first Oaklawn winner came two meets later in 1955, and from there, he gradually built up his stable and earned his first Oaklawn title in 1967. His most recent title came in 1991.

"He's a natural horseman," said trainer James Garroutte, who worked as an assistant to Holthus in 1967. "He's always cool-headed, he has good business sense, and is real consistent in his judgment of horses."

Holthus calls Proper Reality the best he has trained. Proper Reality won the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby in 1988, and a year later captured the Grade 1 Met Mile and Grade 1 Iselin.

Overall, Proper Reality won 10 of 19 starts and $1.7 million, and now stands stud at Kilkerry Farm, a 147-acre breeding and training center that Holthus purchased in 1969. It is the trainer's home, and is located in Royal, Ark., just 14 miles from Oaklawn.

In 2000, Holthus was inducted into the Arkansas Walk of Fame, which includes such people as Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Johnny Cash, and President Bill Clinton. The honor is reserved for those with strong ties to Arkansas who have made a national impact in their field.

Holthus has been honored in one other special way. He has the actual key to the grandstand at Oaklawn, which was given to him between 1958 and 1959 by then-general manager W.T. Bishop.

"I get a lot of ribbing about having a key to the place," said Holthus. "They gave me a key so I could open the door, and so other trainers could come in out of the weather, and I've had it ever since."

Holthus also might hold the key to the opening weekend stakes at Oaklawn.