08/30/2006 11:00PM

After Crown, they carry on


DEL MAR, Calif. - Dan Hendricks was sitting at the rail on the Del Mar clubhouse turn, supervising a couple of late gallopers and grabbing his cell phone whenever the opening strains of "Carry On Wayward Son" sounded on his ring tone. Ah, Kansas.

It was getting close to D-Day for Hendricks and the return of Brother Derek, the onetime toast of California racing. Absent these long months since the Triple Crown, replaced in the hearts of the chattering class by more recent flavors named Bernardini and Discreet Cat, "Bro" Derek will have a chance to pick up where he left off last spring when he runs in the $100,000 El Cajon Stakes at Del Mar on Saturday.

"You've got Brother Derek and Bob and John running for a hundred thousand," Hendricks noted. "That's a pretty stiff hundred-grander."

No question. Any time you bring together the winners of the Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial, the race is usually preceded by people standing and singing, with network TV on the prowl. The El Cajon, on the other hand, is a race of so little historic significance that not only is it mispronounced everywhere outside the Southwest, it was even canceled twice in its 31-year lifespan due to lack of interest.

Hendricks himself has history with the El Cajon, having worked for Richard Mandella when they sent out Mamaison to win the race in 1983. A few other notables have used a victory in the race for larger purposes - comebacks, preps, escape from boredom - among them Go West Young Man, Island Whirl, Nostalgia's Star, and Tasso. The complexion of Saturday's El Cajon assures it space in the paper, and also would seem to guarantee that the winner will need to be very much on his game.

Brother Derek should be, at least as much as Hendricks has allowed. Working about every six days since late July, Brother Derek has been asked to chill his natural heat, in hopes of peaking in richer, longer races to come. Such workouts - several labeled "breezing" - mirror Brother Derek at his previous best last March and into April, when he was always on a hard hold no matter what the exercise entailed. Alex Solis, who has been aboard for any number of workouts and every one of Brother Derek's 10 races, has not been asked to work the colt during his series of works leading to the El Cajon. Solis, of course, understands the plot.

"They want him to go slow in the morning and fast for me on Saturday afternoon," the rider said Thursday.

Solis, Hendricks, and assistant trainer Cisco Alvarado convened to fine-tune this sophisticated strategy at dinner Wednesday evening, but the conversation soon deteriorated into a Brother Derek love fest, led by his jockey.

"There are things about riding a horse like him that are hard to explain," Solis explained. "Even people who have been around Thoroughbreds have a hard time understanding what I say if they haven't been in my position, when I describe the feeling of how they respond to a big crowd, in the paddock and then out on the track. How it feels like they get bigger under you, excited, but never scared. And how you can rely on them, like a friend, while they know you will do everything you can to protect them out there."

There is much to be admired in 3-year-old horses who can stand the gaff of the early-season preps and then the Triple Crown, and still come back for more. Colts like Bernardini and Discreet Cat had comparatively light campaigns from January to June while Barbaro, Bluegrass Cat, Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron, and Bob and John laid their bodies down from New Year's onward, until one thing stopped them, or another.

"It's almost like he was forgotten," Hendricks said of his colt as he steered his wheelchair back to the barn, "like he wasn't the same colt who won six of eight, and had enough trouble in the Derby to be second."

When not exercising toward his comeback this summer, Brother Derek dabbled in the fine arts and produced one of those "Moneighs" to raise money for charity. Hendricks bought Brother Derek's for owner Cecil Peacock, and it's a lovely work in bright pinks, greens, and blues - reminiscent of Basquiat on quaaludes - and signed with a smack of a black hoofprint right in the middle.

"He used his nose," Hendricks said. "Better than I could do."

The best thing about Brother Derek and Hendricks is that they are in for the long haul. Granted, Brother Derek has an ambitious path laid out for the rest of this season, with the Goodwood Handicap and the Breeders' Cup Classic on his wish list. But, between Hendricks and Peacock, there has always been the intention of going on with him at age 4, at least, for which fans can be grateful.

As for Hendricks, he can almost make you believe he is getting used to life in the chair, the result of a motocross crash in July of 2004 that left him paralyzed from the chest south.

"It'll be almost two years since I've had this," Hendricks said as he did a quick set of bar dips using the armrests of his six-wheel, all-terrain Magic Mobility Frontier wheelchair. "That's longer than anything I've ever driven in my life."

Then his phone rang. Cue Kansas.