04/04/2006 12:00AM

A bargain blossoms for Hollendorfer

Vassar Photography
Cause to Believe, acquired by trainer Jerry Hollendorfer for just $30,000, will use the Illinois Derby as a stepping-stone to the Kentucky Derby.

STICKNEY, Ill. - His day begins long before the sun has even thought about peaking over the northern California horizon. Jerry Hollendorfer is up at 3 a.m. and headed to work, training horses.

Each year, Hollendorfer is 1-10 to be leading trainer in northern California, where he doesn't just win - he pummels the opposition.

"He works like a mule," said Art Sherman, often second to Hollendorfer in various trainer races. "He drives himself unmercifully. He wants to be No. 1 - he's got this thing. He works harder than any trainer I know."

Hollendorfer is as likely to have a $4,000 claimer as a stakes horse, but over time, the better ones have come: Two Kentucky Oaks winners in Lite Light and Pike Place Dancer, a fifth in the 2003 Kentucky Derby with Eye of the Tiger. Two other years, Hollendorfer came this close to the Derby, but Event of the Year went down with an injury after a blowout win in the 1998 Jim Beam Stakes, and Globalize was forced out of the 2000 Derby the week of the race.

"But the one I have right now might be the most talented, and he's farther along than they were," Hollendorfer said.

The one Hollendorfer has right now is Cause to Believe, and if he runs well Saturday in the $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne, Hollendorfer is heading back to Churchill Downs next month.

Cause to Believe, a dark gray son of Maria's Mon, might be the favorite here Saturday, but more often than not he has been an underdog. In nine starts, Cause to Believe has been favored only three times, although he comes to Chicago with six victories. And you read that right - nine starts. There are high-profile Kentucky Derby hopefuls with as few as two races (Strong Contender) and three races (Discreet Cat), but Cause to Believe started going last May, and he has never once had a long break.

"So far, we've had good fortune with him with soundness," said Hollendorfer. "Knock on wood, we haven't had any issues."

Cause to Believe won his maiden from close to the pace going 4 1/2 furlongs, but he quickly evolved into a deep closer in his sprint races, coming flying through the stretch after dropping far behind the early pacesetters.

"The first time I rode him, he pretty much did everything wrong," jockey Russell Baze said. "He hated getting dirt in his face; he took himself completely out of it. I finally got him out in the stretch, and he came with this huge run."

That was last summer at Santa Rosa, and how many Kentucky Derby hopefuls have visited that venue? But Baze is quick to point out how far Cause to Believe has come in the last several months. "Developmentally, those things don't bother him anymore," he said. "Physically, as well, a horse couldn't be coming along any better than he is right now."

Cause to Believe won early in his career, but he was not an early bloomer. Becky Thomas, whose Sequel Bloodstock operates at the top of the Thoroughbred sales business, purchased Cause to Believe as a yearling for $30,000.

"He was one of my pinhooking horses," Thomas said, referring to the practice of buying a yearling for the express purpose of selling him the next season at 2. A successful pinhooked horse takes to early training, then goes out and breezes a furlong or two in blazing time during the first months of his 2-year-old year. But that was not Cause to Believe.

"He was a horse that never did anything wrong, but you must be brilliantly fast to sell for a lot of money at the 2-year-old sale," said Thomas. "That horse was not brilliantly fast. He had plenty of speed, but he needed to go more than a quarter of a mile."

Thomas originally entered Cause to Believe in a January 2-year-old sale, but withdrew him and held him out until March, hoping for further development. "He wasn't that fast," said Thomas, "and when Jerry asked me about that horse, I told him just that."

Hollendorfer got Cause to Believe for $30,000, then cut his owner, Peter Redekop, in on the horse. Peter Abruzzo, a Chicagoan, later bought a part of Cause to Believe, and Thomas's small loss has been their gain.

"He was ready to go from the very beginning," said Hollendorfer, who didn't wait around on Cause to Believe even if he thought the horse would improve in longer races.

"One thing I've always believed is that really good horses can go short and long," Hollendorfer said. "You have to have speed and stamina."

And Cause to Believe fits the mold. Baze and Hollendorfer both think Cause to Believe, whose sire already has a Derby winner in Monarchos, will improve the farther he runs. He has won all three of his two-turn races, coming from just off the pace in the Bay Meadows Juvenile last fall, rallying up the rail to win the El Camino Real Derby in late January, and closing from far behind a hot pace last month to win the California Derby by four lengths.

Derby fever? Not for Redekop, who had to be convinced by his trainer that he might have a horse worthy of Triple Crown consideration. And certainly not for Hollendorfer, who sent out 1,170 starters in 2005, and has more than 100 other horses to worry about.

"He looks straight ahead, that's him, all business," said Sherman, who considers himself Hollendorfer's friendly training rival.

Still, Hollendorfer conceded, "All trainers live for the moment when you can run in the better races, me included."