Updated on 11/24/2011 12:41PM

Bob Holthus, longtime Midwestern trainer, dies at 77

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Bob Holthus with Lawyer Ron, who won the 2006 Arkansas Derby and was considered a top Kentucky Derby hopeful

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Bob Holthus, whose training career spanned nearly 60 years and made him a revered figure among his Midwestern peers, died early Tuesday at his home in Louisville. He was 77.

Holthus was a dominant figure at Midwest tracks in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, running one of the largest and most successful stables in the country. He suffered for years from heart problems and other ailments but had remained active while substantially reducing the numbers in his stable in recent years.

Asked innumerable times when he began his career, Holthus would say, "In 1952, on my 18th birthday," in his native Nebraska. He was born June 24, 1934, in Table Rock, Neb., the son and grandson of horse trainers.

According to Daily Racing Form statistics, Holthus won 2,824 races from 19,674 starts, for stable earnings of more than $46 million. He was the all-time leading trainer at Oaklawn Park, where he raced for more than 55 years, won nine training titles, and was held in particularly high regard; so much so that he was given a key to the grandstand by track officials decades ago so he and other trainers could access the facilities to watch their horses work out on cold winter mornings. He also was the leading trainer at meets at Arlington, Ellis Park, Hawthorne, Louisiana Downs, Turfway, and the old Detroit Race Course.

For all he accomplished during his earlier decades, Holthus may have hit his career apex in 2006 when he swept the Southwest, Rebel, and Arkansas Derby with Lawyer Ron, who was regarded as a major contender before finishing 12th behind Barbaro in the Kentucky Derby that year. Holthus was the subject of many media stories that Derby week casting him as a lovable old trainer whose decades of service in racing were finally coming to fruition. Lawyer Ron was sold during Derby week and later transferred to Todd Pletcher, who also did well with him.

Holthus’s last top horse was Pure Clan, the standout filly who earned nearly $2 million in winning the American Oaks at Hollywood Park in 2008, the Grade 1 Flower Bowl at Belmont Park in 2009, and four other graded stakes during her 16-race career.

Among the dozens of other top horses trained by Holthus were Proper Reality, winner of the 1988 Arkansas Derby and 1989 Metropolitan Handicap, Mama’s Pro, Dave’s Friend, Greater Good, Top Avenger, Ruby Surprise, A.V. Eight, and Kings Command. He had five Kentucky Derby starters, the best finish being a fourth by Proper Reality.

Holthus often credited longevity, a deep roster of loyal clients, his employees, and "a lot of luck" with his career being as successful as it was.

Holthus is survived by his wife, Bonnie, who accompanied him to the races with regularity; his son, Paul, a longtime former assistant who also trained a public stable before working in other capacities in the racing industry; his daughter, Debbie, also a longtime stable assistant who worked in recent years overseeing the family farm in Arkansas; and another son, David.

Bonnie Holthus said her husband was getting ready for work early Tuesday when he suffered a heart attack. Emergency personnel were on the scene within minutes, but efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.

Bonnie Holthus noted that her husband almost died of a heart attack 30 years ago "and had an out-of-body experience. He only had about 8 percent of his heart capacity left when he died. He was a miracle. We just all feel so blessed to have had him around as long as we did. He was such a wonderful man in so many ways.

"He had some 2-year-olds that he was excited about, and I think that’s what had been keeping him going. He really loved the game. He was a real trooper and he’s really going to be missed, I know."

Bonnie Holthus said the body will be cremated. A memorial service has been scheduled for the backstretch chapel at Churchill at 10:30 a.m. Eastern, and another will be held on Monday at noon Central in the Oaklawn Park stable area.

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