09/15/2011 11:36AM

Arlington trainer Dorochenko a two-decade overnight success

Four-Footed Fotos
Trainer Gennadi Dorochenko (right), here with jockey Wade Rini, has emerged with 337 starters this year after having only six in 2010.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – Gennadi Dorochenko came to the United States in 1993 with $500 to his name and a plan to transfer his career as a Thoroughbred horseman in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar to the Southern California city of Los Angeles. The move was rash. Dorochenko stayed with a friend’s family for two weeks. Then he began living on the streets. He tried to find work at Santa Anita but had no green card, knew only a few words of English, had no way to break in.

“This is a bad time for me, very hard, very hard,” Dorochenko said. “You can’t make money, you can’t do anything. I slept wherever I could find, for maybe five months like this.”

Eighteen years ago, he couldn’t get a job at the track. Now Dorochenko does the hiring. A few Saturday mornings ago, payday, a dozen racetrack hands clustered around the office of Dorochenko’s barn at Arlington Park. Or, rather, one of his barns. In early May, Dorochenko was given small, back-of-the-property stables capable of housing a couple of dozen horses to train here this summer. Four months later, he has 64 head scattered about the premises. That shift is in keeping with Dorochenko’s expanding operation. He trained no winners from six starters in 2010. Now Dorochenko reckons he has 115 horses in training, 95 of whom are 2-year-olds. Since 2009, he has purchased more horses at Keeneland auctions than any other buyer.

Such uptick in scale would seem crazy if it were coming from an established American horseman. Dorochenko has spent years hanging by a thread.

“Nobody knows about survival,” he said. “I survival.”

That off-kilter English phrasing doesn’t do justice to Dorochenko’s command of the language. Dorochenko, who also speaks German, Polish, and a little Spanish, understands all that is said to him, colloquialisms and jargon. His vocabulary has expanded considerably since his California arrival, when “hello” and “good morning” made up his entire lexicon. Little life lessons often come up: “You don’t buy Ferrari with no tires. What you must do? Put Ferrari in garage. Sorry!” Translation: It’s stupid to spend thousands of dollars for a horse with bad legs.

Dorochenko doesn’t randomly dispense such wisdom to passersby. He keeps to himself, sitting on the Arlington Park apron at a white plastic table shadowed by the overhanging grandstand during training hours. “I say hi and bye, that’s it,” Dorochenko said of relationships at the track. “For this business you don’t have friends. This is competition.” This seems to have long been Dorochenko’s policy: It is difficult to find racetrackers with more than passing knowledge of his existence.

He watches his sets of horses from the apron all morning, a tortoise-shell Bluetooth device fixed to his ear, a Benson and Hedges 100 either in hand or mouth, wearing a brown leather jacket on cooler days. Dorochenko is 5 feet 2 inches tall, the height one would expect of a former jockey, but he has legs and arms the length of a much taller man. Thick graying hair; cool, deep-set blue eyes; a long, prominent nose; teeth that appear to have been enhanced. Shaking hands, his grip crunches down to bone.

“Genius,” said dripping with sarcasm, might be Dorochenko’s favorite English word. A cart-pushing Arlington employee clatters past at an ungodly din, interrupting conversation. “Another genius there,” he says. An interviewer makes a basic geographical mistake trying to place Dorochenko’s hometown, Krasnodar, a fairly large city just north of the Black Sea. Dorochenko pounces. “Oh, genius,” he says, grabbing pen and notebook to sketch a rough map of the region. “Did you go to school?”

After going 0 for 6 in 2010, his first year training in the U.S. since 2007, Dorochenko had compiled a 2011 record of 41-28-39 from 337 runners as of Sept.  11. At Arlington, he has started more horses than any other trainer except John Haran, and Dorochenko said he plans to take as many horses as will be permitted to Hawthorne Race Course this fall and to Fair Grounds over the winter. Besides the 115 race-ready horses, there are yearlings at a farm he leases in Paris, Ky., and 35 runners stabled at the Victory Haven training center near the farm. Sixty-five more horses that Dorochenko eventually will train are housed at a property near Ocala, Fla.

The vast scale of runners has come from Dorochenko’s frenetic activity at Keeneland auctions in recent years. “I bought 128 horses at the September sale at Keeneland,” Dorochenko said proudly, veering off to cite that accomplishment while in the midst of describing his hard early days in California.

Dorochenko eventually got his green card and a jockey’s license, but his riding career stalled before it started. He was blanked in 1993, his first year, and seven years of riding produced only 13 winners.

“Santa Anita was my biggest mistake,” Dorochenko said. “I didn’t have an agent here, I didn’t speak English. Big mistake. In Russia, it’s different. People come from a different country, jockey, trainer, they try to help them. Here, ‘Oh you’re Russian.’ I don’t want to say bad words, but you know, because you’re Russian, a lot of people don’t know they even have racetracks. ‘Oh, do you have a racetrack in Russia? Do you have VCRs in Russia?’ ”

What money Dorochenko made, he made in the morning, working as a freelance gallop boy for various trainers.

“He galloped a few horses for me,” said trainer Mel Stute. “He was a little bit wild when I had him. He got very mad at me a couple times because I didn’t ride him on a couple horses he galloped. But he was never drunk, always came to work on time and everything. I thought he was competent. I don’t know about his training ability, how he might do with the legs and all, but he was fine galloping.”

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Dorochenko tried his luck in Washington, where he did slightly better as a rider than he did in California, but hardly very well. For one year, 2002, Dorochenko left California, riding the horses he trained at Delaware Park, where he won one race on a huge longshot.

“I remember he rode and trained his own,” said Andy Simoff, a trainer who stables at Delaware and recalls Dorochenko’s 2002 invasion. “A little guy. You’d see him at the sales all the time. He’s winning some races now, but he didn’t there. Everything he rode was 100-1. He came in here with a bunch of longshots. But he was a hustler. He picked out all his own horses and everything.”

During the mid-2000s, Dorochenko carved out a tiny niche training in Northern California, his annual win total peaking at 14 before fading to nothing in 2007.

It is difficult to ascertain why Dorochenko left his homeland. He eventually applied for political asylum in the U.S. but mentioned no particular problems back home. Dorochenko said he had made decent money in Russian racing, though the era of dealing strictly in Soviet state-owned horses could be difficult. Dorochenko demurs when asked what his parents did for a living and doesn’t understand why anyone would want to know. Life in the Soviet Union hardly was an open book. But there’s a racetrack in Krasnodar and horse country around it. Dorochenko’s grandfather was a blacksmith, he reveals, and Dorochenko first got on a horse when he was 3.

“All my life I’ve been with horses,” he said. “I grew up in the barn.”

Dorochenko said he began his career as a jockey in 1976 as a contract rider in Krasnodar. For a time, he was employed by trainer Nikolai Nasibov, the leading horseman of the Soviet era who, in the mid-1960s, rode Aniline to second- and third-place finishes in the Washington, D.C. International. Dorochenko also rode in Poland, and said he spent six years getting a university degree in order to become a professional trainer in Russia. Before he made the move to the U.S., Dorochenko went to Poland to ride in 1989 and 1990. 

Dorochenko left his wife and two children behind in Russia when he first came to the U.S. and didn’t see them for more than five years. Irina, his wife, now lives with him in Chicago. His daughter, Miroslava, runs the farm in Kentucky, according to Dorochenko. But there was trouble with Dorochenko’s son, Alexander. He allegedly fled the United States in December 2006 to avoid prosecution for a murder that occurred in 2005, according to a document provided by the California Horse Racing Board. Gennadi Dorochenko was arrested that month and charged as an accessory to murder for helping his son, a minor, to flee. Dorochenko spent 77 days in jail and 210 days under electronic home detention, and was placed on probation for three years. The CHRB documents were made public as part of a relicensing suitability hearing that took place in June 2010. Dorochenko has not yet officially applied for a California license, but he could, since the CHRB saw no reason not to reinstate him in good standing after his probationary period ended.

Dorochenko said he didn’t want to talk about his son or about his own experience in the matter: He had served his time, and the past was the past. He did, however, claim that “everything was fabricated against me because I’m from Russia.”

It was during the probationary period that Dorochenko started getting seriously involved in horse sales. Buying as Raut LLC, Dorochenko purchased 25 yearlings for $206,000 at Keeneland September 2008. Vladimir Kazakov, one of Dorochenko’s current owners, and whose Keeneland purchases often are made in conjunction with Raut, bought six more. At the November 2009 sale that year, Raut bought 14 horses, and in January 2009, Raut picked up 12 more. At the September 2009 yearling sale, Raut purchased 17 horses, Kazakov 19 for $452,500, the two combining to lead the auction in lots purchased. In November 2009, Raut bought 19 horses, this time paying up to $190,000 for a single horse, and spending more than $1 million.

But all that buying was child’s play compared with Dorochenko’s Keeneland activity since. In the four Keeneland sales (not including the April 2-year-old auctions, which Dorochenko does not patronize) between January 2010 and January 2011, Raut and Kazakov purchased 243 horses, more than any other buyer. And Dorochenko said he doesn’t expect the pace of buying to slow at the ongoing Keeneland September yearling sale.

“What changed? Nothing,” Dorochenko said, asked to explain the buying spree. “Three years in a row I don’t train horses, I go buying horses. I bought before, but not horses that can win as many races.”

The most expensive sales purchases are shipped to Russia before anyone starts training them. Some, such as North Stream, a $45,000 Giant’s Causeway colt who won the 2010 Russian Derby, have entered the racing stable of Ramzan Kadyrov, the controversial president of the Republic of Chechnya. Kadyrov, who bought the American 3-year-old Sweet Ducky this year, has been accused of human rights violations in his country.

Dorochenko said he doesn’t know Kadyrov, and that only occasionally does he buy an individual horse at Keeneland for a particular owner, more often purchasing a group of horses in a certain price range that he selects himself.
The low-end sales buys, $10,000 or less, tend to remain in the U.S., where Dorochenko stays closely involved with every aspect of their preparation. The yearlings go to the farm in Paris, and Dorochenko said he breaks the horses himself, though the Kentucky farm has only paddocks and exercise machines and no training track.

“You buy for yourself, you prepare these horses yourself, you know what you have,” Dorochenko said. “If you buy from somebody, give somebody these horses to train, you don’t know what you have. You teach your way.”

Dorochenko said more than half the horses in training are owned by Raut, the bloodstock company and racing stable of which he is the principal. Many more are owned by Kazakov, and a handful are owned by an entity called Mongolian Stable, whose principal is Dagvadorj Ganbaatar. Kazakov once was a jockey himself, having ridden Arabian races, according to Eugene Kappushev, a Russian racing official at the Pyatigorsk track and a Russian racing blogger. Kazakov attended an agricultural academy, Kappushev said, and started a tobacco business that grew into the immense Baltic Tobacco Factory, which annually produces about 10 billion cigarettes. One of the brands it produces, Jin Ling cigarettes, has been the subject of reports of smuggling in Europe.

Dorochenko trained for non-Russian owners when he was in Northern California. One of them, Howard Bumford, provided a letter of recommendation to the CHRB for Dorochenko’s relicensing suitability hearing. Dorochenko conceded that current owners help foot his cost of doing business, which must be substantial. But Dorochenko, who earns commissions on all the horses he buys, said he has made a total financial commitment of his own, as well. “All the money I make from with the horses I invest back in horses,” he said.

Dorochenko was racing with success earlier in the summer at Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, where he had 24 stalls, but he pulled out of that venue in July and is based solely at Arlington, where he has been a boon to the racing office. Dorochenko has entered two horses in a majority of the races carded for 2-year-olds this summer, and his 192 starters (which have produced 18 wins) are the second-most by a trainer at the meet.

“They give me [stalls] because my horses run,” Dorochenko said. “A lot of people don’t run. I make money for my owner, I make money for me, the racetrack makes money too. The more horses run, the more people make money.”

Some local horsemen have disparaged Dorochenko’s methods, suggesting his horses are trained hard without any apparent purpose. But Dorochenko has managed to get a large number of very inexpensive yearlings to the races. Many of them have won, and it does not take long for a $1,500 animal to start showing a profit for his connections.

“For one person, it maybe would take years to figure a horse out,” Dorochenko said. “For me, maybe one hour, one week, who knows. I don’t know – I have a feeling for horses. I know what to do. When a horse is just galloping, you already can see what’s going on.”

Dorochenko shuns timed workouts. He was fined earlier in the meet because a first-time starter lacked the minimum number of published works, and many of Dorochenko’s debuting runners show only a pair of slow three-furlong breezes.

“Money is paid in afternoon, not for workouts. I don’t believe in workouts,” Dorochenko said. “I see this horse galloping and I tell you this horse is fit enough. But for example, California, every six days – work! You know why? Because people have owners to show. ‘Look at this! The big horse worked in 59!’ Go to the race, run like a dog. Already killed in workout. After this, what happens? ‘The jockey gave bad ride.’ Blame the jockey. Blame somebody.”

Dorochenko also has made a practice of using obscure jockeys, riders who have gotten no Arlington traction from other trainers.

“Why is this? Because I try to help people,” he said, adding that when he first came to the U.S. he was treated poorly. “I want to show that this rider can run, too. That’s what I do. If someone drives a Ferrari all the time, of course he does better. Agents make jockeys. If you have good connection, you get good horses.”

Dorochenko, however, has been quick to pull the plug on his pet projects. In June and July, his go-to rider was Carlos Castro, a winner of 23 races from 263 mounts this year. But Castro was replaced mid-meet after going 5 for 56 on Dorochenko runners. Olaf Hernandez, who had been riding for Dorochenko at Mountaineer, showed up at Arlington, went 0 for 15 for the barn and has not been seen on a Dorochenko horse for several weeks. Wade Rini, who was 5 for 64 at the Thistledown meet in Ohio before surfacing at Arlington, and Lyndon Hannigan, who was 0 for 47 at Thistledown, recently have been brought into the fold.

No one is questioning Dorochenko’s work ethic. When first applying for Arlington stalls, Dorochenko drove overnight from West Virginia to Chicago, inspected the barn being offered him, and continued on to Keeneland, where he had a string of horses at the time. Asked how many hours a week he works, Dorochenko laughed.

“Twenty four hours a day,” he said. “Listen, I don’t have one day off. I’m working all my life. I’m working so many hours. I wake up every day at 4 o’clock. I go to the barn. After training I maybe go home, take a shower, boom, come back, because I have horses to run here.”

Dorochenko’s summer peak came on Arlington Million Day, when the 3-year-old filly Santina Dond, whom Dorochenko had purchased at Keeneland, and who had started her career with two wins on the Polish turf, beat a good field in the $60,000 Hatoof Stakes, Dorochenko’s first victory in an American stakes race.

“She beat some of the best 3-year-old fillies in America,” Dorochenko said proudly.

Santina Dond, owned by Kazakov, is scheduled to start Saturday at Arlington in the Grade 3 Pucker Up Stakes, but Dorochenko’s graded stakes runners at the meet have fared poorly. A pair of 2-year-olds in the Arlington-Washington Futurity finished ninth and 11th at odds over 100-1. And in the race following the Hatoof, the Secretariat, L’Aiglon, a 64-1 longshot, took a bad step and suffered a catastrophic breakdown.

More common, and somewhat more successful, are the legions of low-end yearling buys showing up in $15,000 maiden-claiming races for 2-year-olds this summer. The operative word is quantity, not quality, and Dorochenko is sorting through the daily stress of managing such a huge enterprise. Not that he is about to turn away from it all at this point.

“I know one thing – I feel freedom right now,” Dorochenko said. “Nobody tells me to run your horse here, run your horse there. If I make mistake, I make mistake myself.”