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Daredevil whose luck had run out
For those who believe in fate, or at least in the reasonably predictable consequences of lifelong behaviors, it seemed only a matter of time before Dan Hendricks sustained some kind of serious injury while playing one of his games of physical chance.
At the same time, for those who have witnessed his consistently impressive work as a trainer of high-stakes Thoroughbreds, it is absolutely no surprise at all that Hendricks has his hands on the likely favorite for America's most famous race.
What is hard to swallow is the fact that these two unrelated plot strands have come together at the same place and time, on the threshold of the 132nd Kentucky Derby, to be run at Churchill Downs next Saturday, May 6.
In a perfect world, Hendricks would have had his shot at the Derby some time ago, a reward for dues paid at the feet of master trainers such as Richard Mandella and Willard Proctor, and for making the most of genetic gifts supplied by a set of parents who were more comfortable on horseback than afoot.
Instead, Hendricks missed that jump on a motocross course he had ridden many times before. He missed it so badly that he was flipped from his motorcycle and slammed to the ground, shattering his third thoracic vertebra and severing the spinal cord at a point guaranteed to render him without feeling or movement below the armpits. He had become, in the parlance of such injury victims, a T3 complete, at the age of 45, with no hope of ever walking again.
As a result, nearly 22 months after that terrible day, Hendricks finds himself training his first Derby starter while in a wheelchair, far from his comfort zone, his every public move subjected to the glare of media exposure. Whether he is operating his six-wheel, all-terrain, 240-pound Magic Mobility Frontier chair, or rolling along in his more conventional lightweight manual chair, Hendricks will be a moving target for every media magpie intent on leaving not a dry eye in the house.
"I remember saying it to Dan when he was in the hospital," recalled Samantha Hendricks, Dan's wife of 19 years and mother of their three sons. " 'Watch now, you'll end up with a Derby horse, and it will turn into the biggest sap story that racing's ever seen.' "
Hopefully, there also will be room for an appreciation of Brother Derek's cool, calculated development from a $275,000 2-year-old, bought by Canadian oilman Cecil Peacock at the 2005 Barretts March sale. Although he deserves all manner of praise, Hendricks takes no particular credit, other than being in the right place with the right patron when Brother Derek, a son of the California stallion Benchmark and a full brother to Peacock's stakes-winning 4-year-old Don'tsellmeshort, went through the ring.
"How tough is that?" Hendricks allowed. "We had his full brother and liked him. The colt looked good, so we bid on him. Fortunately, Cecil kept bidding after I told him to stop."
One year later, Brother Derek stood at the top of the West Coast 3-year-old division as the winner of the Hollywood Futurity, Santa Catalina Stakes, and San Rafael Stakes. After adding the April 8 Santa Anita Derby to the growing list, Brother Derek was being compared to some of the best modern California-bred 3-year-olds to embark upon the Kentucky Derby trail, including Flying Paster, Best Pal, and Preakness winner Snow Chief.
Hendricks, a practitioner of no-frills, common-sense horse training, bristles at the idea of unreasonably high expectations for Brother Derek.
"That's not fair to any athlete," he said. "I think it hurt Kobe Bryant to be called the next Michael Jordan. It's the same with a racehorse. Brother Derek could go on and have a Snow Chief type of career, win a lot of stakes and a few million dollars. Or he could be another Spectacular Bid. But you don't know that. And saying things like that just sets you up for disappointment."
"My first reaction after I'd been injured was that I'd done the unthinkable. Not only had I injured myself, but those around me, because they would be affected - my wife, my children. It was not my own mess, but a mess for everybody. So at first I was very guilty."
- Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman in four films, paralyzed from the neck down in a 1995 show-jumping fall at age 43. He died in 2004.
On July 7, 2004, after inspecting a group of 2-year-olds being prepared for the track at an inland California farm, Hendricks decided to feed his occasional need for speed with a practice run at the Starwest Motocross Park, near the farming community of Perris, about 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
At that point in his career, Hendricks had been responsible for a number of stakes winners - including Grey Slewpy, Private Persuasion, Smooth Player, Reba's Gold, and Runaway Dancer - while working for such clients as Ed Friendly, Marty Wygod, and Alex Trebek. Hendricks had a reputation for keeping a low profile, speaking his mind, and steering clear of media contact except when necessary.
"He was very much his own guy," said Friendly, a successful television producer and one of Hendricks's first clients when he opened a public stable in 1987. "He was not what I'd call a very good diplomat, but for a young man, he was amazingly patient."
Neither did it bother Friendly that his trainer partook in a variety of exciting hobbies.
"I don't think a guy like me who rode in rodeos as a youngster can have much of a complaint," Friendly said. "Besides, I was 3 1/2 years in the infantry during World War II. As a result, I have a different perspective on living dangerously."
The Starwest motocross course is known as a challenging test for all levels of motorcycle riders, who are required to sign a seven-point waiver that releases management from any liability for accidents, injuries, or possible negligence by emergency medical personnel.
"Dan was an excellent rider - I mean unbelievable," said his older brother, John Hendricks. "The younger guys would call him Old Man Dan, and he was beating riders half his age. But that's just Dan. He broke his arm once playing football in junior high and never told anybody. He's a very determined person."
After the divorce of their parents - Lee and Ann Hendricks - John and Dan were raised by their mother and stepfather, Jerry Cleavenger, on the Rancho Santa Fe property owned by Ann's family. When the boys weren't on horses, they were usually found aboard off-road motorcycles, inventing their own jumps in the hills surrounding their ranch.
"I think the whole family's very competitive," John said. "It's just something in us that we do, and we do it the best we can."
John Hendricks, who is a supervisor for the Santa Fe Irrigation District of north San Diego County, is also a lifelong motorcycle rider who had a good portion of his right hand sliced away when it was tangled in the chain of another bike during a racing crash three years ago. Left with a thumb and forefinger, he is still possessed of a strong grip that fits just fine with his current ride, a Harley Davidson Road King.
"Starwest is a track I never liked," John noted. "I went there once but never rode. People told me you had to be real experienced to ride there - which Dan was. But then, something happened. It was a jump he'd taken a number of times, and no different than jumps he'd taken on other tracks. Something like that happens extremely quick, and you land extremely hard."
Dan Hendricks said that he knew he'd broken his back on impact, and that he was probably paralyzed. He spent two days in emergency intensive care in a local hospital, then was transferred to the University of California-San Diego Medical Center.
"What's really weird is that in the beginning it was a feeling of floating, or like I was hanging," Hendricks said. "Totally different than I would have imagined it. In rehab, it was like teaching a newborn to walk. I had to learn the little things I do now to get into position to get up, or to transfer" - from bed to chair, or chair to car seat - "and now it's becoming natural."
"The big thing about being paralyzed isn't that you can't folk dance, or date any more girls who don't live in ground-floor apartments. It's the dependency. You lose your control over your environment, and you just have to keep inside yourself and find a strong place, to survive."
- John Callahan, award-winning cartoonist and author, a quadriplegic with partial use of his hands since a 1972 car wreck at age 21 (riding with friend driving drunk).
"I think for anybody 25 or under, it's a lot easier to adapt to it, and to accept it," Hendricks noted. "At my age, my life was pretty well stable and set. Something like this was the furthest thing I felt would ever happen. It could have happened in a car, or on a horse. But maybe motorcycles wasn't the smartest hobby to take up."
He won't get an argument from Samantha Hendricks. The Scottish-born daughter of an engineer and a nursing professor, Sam, as she is known, runs her own business as a bloodstock sales agent, preparing yearlings and 2-year-olds for auction.
"When Dan and I met, there wasn't a motorcycle in sight," she said. "He didn't take it up again until he was in his forties. I wasn't happy. Then, when his brother was hurt three years ago, Dan was pretty shaken up, and I was furious. They were grown men with families acting like kids."
On the day of the wreck, Samantha Hendricks was in Del Mar with their sons - Chris, now 15; Matthew, 13; and Greg, 10 - getting ready for the upcoming Del Mar season. Friends stepped in to care for the boys, as she raced to the hospital and got the bad news.
"I could have said 'I told you so,' but I didn't," she said. "And yes, Dan said he was sorry. More than once.
"In terms of physical recovery, he was at eight months where most people are in four years," she noted. "It was an amazing recovery. But I wasn't surprised. Still, you can never put yourself in the place of someone in a wheelchair. I can't, and I live with him. He deals so well with the frustrations - all the little things that have become so difficult. I suppose he could be keeping it all inside, but I hope not."
Dan Hendricks knows the numbers. Those who sustain a spinal cord injury in their mid-40's can expect to live about 10 years if they are quadriplegic, about twice that if they are paraplegic. The divorce rate annually among individuals with spinal cord injuries within the first three years following injury is approximately 2 1/2 times that of the general population.
"I was not the nicest guy to live with that first year," Hendricks conceded. "I put my family through a lot. I just hope they forgive me. But I know what situations like this can do to a marriage, especially if things weren't going that good before it happened."
Despite the many personal issues he faces, Hendricks has been able to maintain his 24-horse public stable. As a trainer, he made his mark on the California scene as one of the ultimate hands-on practitioners, able to cut through the confusing signals sent by hot-wired animals by throwing a leg over them and finding things out for himself.
"That's the most frustrating thing, that I can't handle the horses anymore," Hendricks said. "I used to gallop them myself, and straighten out one that needed it. Or grab a shank. Or get on a pony and teach a horse something when it was necessary. It was a tool, and it was something I enjoyed.
"Now I have to tell people what to do and how to do it. But maybe it's for the better. I have to sit down and watch everything. Still, I wish I'd been able to get on Brother Derek once, just to feel him. Just to have the fun of riding him."
That pleasure goes to Francisco Alvarado, Hendricks's assistant trainer, or to exercise rider Luis Ortega. On important work days - like the final Derby tuneup scheduled for Monday at Churchill Downs - the rider is Alex Solis, the only jockey to ride Brother Derek in competition.
"He is like a Ferrari," Solis said of the colt. "So smooth. And the way Dan has handled him is an inspiration."
Hendricks and Solis are joined by more than their Derby colt. Just 16 days after the trainer went down at Starwest, Solis fell at the top of the Del Mar stretch, suffering multiple fractures to his fifth thoracic vertebra. The damage required four hours of precision work from Dr. Howard Tung, a neurological surgeon based in La Jolla, Calif., who was also part of the surgical team that put Hendricks's spine back together.
"Dan's injury was very unstable," Tung said. "The body was crushed and subluxed, and the cord was basically severed. As for the surgery itself, it's a very difficult approach, through the chest. There's bleeding, and there are a lot of complications that can occur. The T3 level is replaced with a 'cage' to stabilize the spine, so we could get him up, sitting in a chair."
"Making the body work regardless of physical deficit is not a challenge I would wish on anyone, but getting good at being disabled is like discovering an alternative platform. It's closer to puppetry than anything else I can think of. I should know: I've been at it for 25 years. I have lots of moving parts. Two of them are not my legs."
- John Hockenberry, foreign correspondent and award-winning broadcaster, paraplegic since a 1976 car wreck at age 19 (picked up hitchhiking, driver fell asleep at the wheel).
Any temptation to feel sorry for Hendricks can be quickly disposed of by a brief tour of his family's history of daredevil behavior.
Danny Lee Hendricks is the fourth of four children born to Lee and Ann Hendricks, part of a trick-riding rodeo show that included Lee's twin brother, Byron. The show raised goosebumps on 1950's audiences all over the country, from rural Western outposts to the grandest arena of them all, Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. At their peak, they were paid $1,000 a show.
The Hendricks brothers were known for riding matched pairs of horses Roman style (one foot on each horse) and making Evel Knievel-esque jumps over cars. Byron could send horses over immense obstacles, and he had a pack of dogs trained to do just about everything this side of algebra.
For their part, Lee and Ann offered an array of acts, including a comedy bit with white mules, a Spanish dressage fandango, and an acrobatic duet with a rearing pair of horses - one black, one white - dubbed "Me and My Shadow." They got laughs from dangerous stunts, and made difficult tricks look easy.
"I probably came close to getting killed maybe a dozen times," said Lee Hendricks, 82, who lives in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance with his second wife, Pam. "But the closest I ever came was hopping freight cars as a kid."
After disbanding the show, the Hendricks brothers became well-known in the Southern California racing world for their handling of problem Thoroughbreds, horses who needed to be gentled, coaxed, and basically retrained to shed unwanted behaviors. Both Lee and Byron trained stables at the tracks.
Dan galloped horses for his father and uncle before going to work for Willard Proctor, the legendary Texan who trained Gallant Romeo and Convenience, and then Richard Mandella, the future Hall of Famer. It wasn't long before Hendricks accepted a position as Mandella's assistant trainer.
"He was probably 20," Mandella recalled. "Kind of wild and unfocused, I guess. I asked him what he was going to do when he finally grew up. He said he hadn't thought about it much."
Almost from the first, Mandella looked upon Dan Hendricks as a little brother.
"A bad little brother," Mandella corrected. "I wasn't much older than him, but I was much wiser."
There is evidence to the contrary, submitted by Mandella himself.
"I'd just started to ski," he said. "Been out twice. I hardly knew how to get off the lift. Dan was pretty good, and he offered to teach me. So off we went. First thing Danny does is suggest that we buy a couple little cans of wine there in the shop and put them in our pockets. So we do, and we drink a couple on the way to the top.
"The very top," Mandella continued. "Black diamond run - and I don't even know what that means. I looked down and said, 'Danny, I can't do this.' He's says, 'Sure you can. Just go side to side, real slow.' Dan skis off and just whips down there. I go slow, like he said, and I make it! I look back up, and I can't believe it. So we're laughing like hell - by now the wine's kicked in - and I go to skate off. But I grab a quarter or something and stumble, fall, and break my freakin' wrist."
"It's one thing to be disabled. It's another thing to not have a life. I've been very lucky to be able to maintain a lifestyle. I'm not saying I don't have obstacles or pain, but overall I have a wonderful life. A lot of people don't have those lives because they don't have the opportunity."
- Teddy Pendergrass, soul singer extraordinaire, paraplegic since a 1982 car wreck at age 32 (brakes failed while driving his Rolls Royce).
A week or so before the Santa Anita Derby, at a hotel restaurant near the track, Hendricks met with Ron Bell, a representative of Independence Technology. Bell had no idea who Hendricks was, other than a potential customer for one of the $28,000 iBOT wheelchairs that afford the disabled a broader range of postures and mobility.
"It can stand you higher up for functional reasons," Bell explained, "or even social purposes, if you want to be at eye level with other people at a cocktail mixer, a business meeting, something like that."
For Hendricks, cocktail mixers are not a priority, and horses can be appraised from any number of angles. However, the high-tech chair offered an answer to one of his most difficult hurdles - a badly damaged ego.
"I don't like looking up at people all the time," he said.
Neither does he enjoy the poorly camouflaged sympathy that makes him feel more self-conscious than he already is.
"I sense it from people, as anyone would when they first meet someone in a chair," he said. "Then as soon as they get over the fact that they don't need to be so worried about me, it's over. They always want to be helpful, and that's nice. When you're in this situation you have to use people to help you at times."
Churchill Downs officials have assured Hendricks that he'll have their help in the coming week, with such things as a special van and a barnside platform for morning interviews. Hendricks will mostly go his own way, though, tossing wisecracks as he rolls.
"Danny has handled this accident better than any person I can possibly imagine," said B. Wayne Hughes, whose large racing stable includes Mister Triester, Greeley's Galaxy, and Don't Get Mad.
"I was in Florida with Mandella at the sales not long ago, and Richard said he was ready to go to dinner, that his feet were sore," Hughes went on. "I went over to Danny and invited him to go with us, explaining why Richard was ready to leave. Danny doesn't miss a beat. 'Tell Richard to come over here and tell me his feet are sore.' "
In the end, it will be the Hendricks's brand of dark humor - plus the presence of his father, his brother, and his three sons - that will get him through Derby Week. Brother Derek, for all his solid credentials, does not need to win to keep Hendricks from rolling off an Ohio River bridge in frustration.
"I'd probably mess it up, anyway," he said. "Come out a quadriplegic."
His only selfish wish is a simple one.
"I'd rather it was about Brother Derek, and me as his trainer, not about 'the guy in the wheelchair who trains Brother Derek,' " Hendricks said. "I guess it's a part of the story, and you have to go along with it. But it's not what got me here."