Updated on 08/27/2012 7:44PM

Del Mar: Veteran trainers carry on despite medical issues

Shigeki Kikkawa
Trainer Barry Abrams was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2005. After missing nearly all of last year to recover from surgery, he is back in full force at the current Del Mar meet.

About five months after his 1991 auto accident, Bill Shoemaker resumed training, this time as a quadriplegic who had to puff into a state-of-the-art wheelchair to get from here to there. Six years after that, at 66, Shoemaker gave it all up. “It’s too much for me to do,” he said. “The two to three hours a day of therapy, the seven days a week of training. I just can’t do it anymore.”

Dan Hendricks, a young trainer in the 1990’s, had a front-row seat for Shoemaker and his struggles to stay in the game. “Shoe did all right,” Hendricks said. “He was doing quite well until it all got the best of him.”

For the last eight years, Hendricks has also trained horses from a wheelchair. Left a paraplegic after a dirt bike accident on a California motocross course, Hendricks suffered an injury not as severe as Shoemaker’s, but a wheelchair is still a wheelchair.

“What’s the old joke?” Hendricks said. “A man complains about not having any shoes? Then the man next to him says, ‘No shoes? I don’t have any feet.’ ”

The Southern California trainers colony is overstocked with horsemen who have been dealt from the bottom of the deck, but they are determined veterans not unlike those salty horses who can run 1 1/4 miles − there’s no quit to them. Just this year, Bob Baffert, one of the game’s premier trainers, suffered a heart attack in Dubai, where he was trying to win a $10 million race 8,300 miles from home. Mike Mitchell, who’s won more than 2,600 races, underwent surgery for a brain tumor June 29. A year ago, Barry Abrams, diagnosed in 2005 with throat cancer, had a tumor the size of a golf ball removed. Baffert, Abrams, and Hendricks can be found at their barns at Del Mar, and Mitchell, once his five-times-a-week radiation treatments are behind him, vows that he will be back to stay before the season ends Sept. 5. He has already made an occasional morning appearance as he commutes from his home in Redondo Beach, 100 miles away.

A Del Mar without Mitchell is incomprehensible. In a span of 31 years, he has led or co-led the trainers’ standings seven times. His first title came in 1981, when he was 33; his most recent came last year. Mitchell began this season with 454 Del Mar wins, more than anybody.

Mitchell may have been thinking Del Mar while he was on a gurney at USC Medical Center.

“Five minutes before the surgery, Mike still had a condition book in his hands,” said Denise Mitchell, who married Mike in 1981. “I said to myself, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But this is what these guys do. Mike and [his assistant, Phil D’Amato] were talking about calling the racing office, with nominations and that sort of thing.”

Abrams never considered bowing out of racing when a routine physical exam on his 51st birthday led to tests that detected his cancer. He had been involved with horses since he was a teenager, starting out with Standardbreds before moving to the Thoroughbred side in the 1980’s.

“When you get a diagnosis like I had, anxiety and depression are bound to sink in,” Abrams said. “I don’t know how people handle all that if they work at a regular job. I’m lucky. The other guys are lucky, too. Some of them may have suffered more than I have, but we’re lucky to be in a game, working with these fine animals, that brings you so much joy. On any given day, you might win a race, and it takes your mind off your problems. Even if it only happens every month or two, it’s still worth it. I’ve got 30 horses at Del Mar, and about 150 more scattered around the farms. Horses are going to take care of me the rest of my life.”

Bob Baffert

Bob Baffert thought he was invincible. So did many of the people around him.

Baffert; his wife, Jill; and their 7-year-old son, Bode, had arrived in the United Arab Emirates a week in advance of this year’s $10 million Dubai World Cup. Baffert, who had already won the race twice, with Silver Charm and Captain Steve, went to the barns to check out Game On Dude, who was running in the World Cup, and The Factor, his horse in a $2 million race on the March 31 undercard.

At the hotel, Baffert, 59, felt tired and nauseated and had a stinging sensation in his left arm. He blamed the rigors of the arduous trip. Jill got on her computer, scrolled through enough alarms based on those symptoms, and quickly called paramedics. Baffert was rushed to the hospital, where doctors found that an artery on the left side of his heart was completely blocked, and another was blocked 90 percent. Three stents were inserted to unclog the passages.

Baffert was back in action by race day, watching Game On Dude finish 12th in his poorest race, which came after The Factor had run sixth. Baffert’s reputation as a quipster was unflagging. “Need to win the World Cup just to break even on medical bills,” he tweeted before the races.

Baffert said that if his heart attack had come on the long flight from Los Angeles to Dubai, or if his wife hadn’t acted so quickly in the hotel room, he wouldn’t have survived. Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai and founder of the World Cup, personally alerted hospital personnel to Baffert’s needs and visited the hospital the day after the surgery.

While Baffert was in Dubai, he learned that Richard’s Kid, who is owned by Sheikh Rashid, Sheikh Mohammed’s son, was being returned to Baffert’s barn in California.

“It was almost like a bonus for me after I had the heart attack,” Baffert said. “I got saved, and Richard’s Kid was coming back, so something good came out of [the trip].”

Richard’s Kid, then owned by Arnold Zetcher, won the 2009 Pacific Classic at Del Mar and repeated in 2010 after Sheikh Rashid had bought the horse. In Dubai, Richard’s Kid went winless in five starts in 2011-12, but upon rejoining Baffert he posted two wins and a second to stablemate Game On Dude in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Last weekend, however, Richard’s Kid was sold by Sheikh Rashid to an American group. He will run in Sunday’s Pacific Classic in the name of assistant trainer Leandro Mora, who is running the Doug O’Neill barn during O’Neill’s 40-day suspension.

Baffert was not a happy camper when he learned of the Richard’s Kid deal. His best remaining shot in the Pacific Classic is Game On Dude, who is owned in part by Joe Torre, former manager of the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, among other teams. Torre, a survivor of prostate cancer, couldn’t watch his horse run in Dubai because of his duties with Major League Baseball, but he was on hand at Hollywood Park for Game On Dude’s win in the Californian on June 2.

“In a way, the race our horse ran in Dubai was disappointing,” Torre said. “But in another way it was great that [Baffert] came home and recovered the way he did. That’s the most important thing. There’s always another race.”

As part of his rehab, Baffert acts as though he may never touch red meat again. Several days before the Kentucky Derby, in which he finished second with Bodemeister and sixth with Liaison as he tried to win the race for the fourth time, he tweeted: “Having dinner in Kentucky. Went from bone-in fillet to bone-in chicken.”

Fish is also a regular part of Baffert’s new diet. He’s making other precautionary concessions. On July 29, when Paynter gave him his sixth win in the Haskell Invitational, Baffert stayed back at Del Mar to watch, rather than making the cross-country trip into the sticky heat at Monmouth Park. Jimmy Barnes, an assistant trainer since the late 1990’s, saddled Paynter. In an interview with The Blood-Horse, Baffert once credited Barnes for doing a lot of the “heavy lifting.” On the days of his previous five Haskell wins, Baffert made a ritualistic stop at Max’s Famous Hot Dogs on the New Jersey Shore. After this year’s running, Baffert’s diet was intact, and the superstition was also pretty much in place. For Barnes, Baffert’s prerace instructions included a stop at Max’s.

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Dan Hendricks

In July 2004, Dan Hendricks was readying veteran stakes winner Runaway Dancer to run in the Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park. After morning workouts July 7, Hendricks stopped at a motocross track in Riverside for a few runs with his dirt bike.

Use of the track cost him $20.

“I had a high-risk hobby,” said Hendricks, 53. “Like skiing. I started doing it when I was 13 years old.”

His wife, Samantha, married to Hendricks for 19 years, had asked him to quit motocross. Hendricks’s brother had been seriously injured on a bike.

On July 7, 2004, there was a spill. Hendricks was thrown, crushing a vertebra that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

“I had gone down before,” Hendricks said. “It was just one of those things. I just landed the wrong way.”

While Hendricks recuperated in the hospital, his 23-horse stable was run by Samantha, a bloodstock agent, and two of Hendricks’ assistants, Cisco Alvarado and Bernardino Ortiz. Samantha appeared to be biting her lip every step of the way. When Hendricks got to the Kentucky Derby with Brother Derek in 2006, Samantha repeatedly told reporters the angle − that of a partly paralyzed trainer with one of the Derby favorites − was a “sap story” compared with the reality of her family’s future.

Shortly after the spill in Riverside, Runaway Dancer finished fourth in the Sunset. Three years later, as an 8-year-old, he would win the race on the fourth try, with Hendricks joining him in his wheelchair in the winner’s circle. After six weeks in that hospital, he had returned to training, cheered on by every owner who had a horse in his barn.

It’s a bittersweet story. Hendricks filed for divorce from Samantha in 2007. Their three sons, now ages 16 to 21, share their residences, about a mile apart not far from Santa Anita.

Since the accident, Hendricks has won at least 24 stakes races, and his barn has totaled about $10 million in purses. Three and a half months after the spill, Hendricks won the California Cup Classic − beating Lava Man − with Cozy Guy, a 20-1 shot. He went to the 2006 Kentucky Derby with the third choice, Brother Derek, who had won the Santa Anita Derby. Brother Derek, drawing the No. 18 post, finished in a dead heat for fourth place with Jazil, then got caught on the heels of the ill-fated Barbaro, the Derby winner, before running fourth in the Preakness.

“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” Hendricks said as he took himself back to the summer of 2004. “But then I thought, at least I have a job to go back to. Ninety percent of the people in my position wouldn’t have that opportunity. Racing was in my blood. Without my peers, I couldn’t have done it. The family, my owners, the guys at the barn, everybody. I have a lot of feeling for everybody who was there when it counted. Looking at what Bill Shoemaker had done as a trainer after his car accident made it easier to accept.

Other guys have done it. There was even that guy in England,” he said, referring to Dick Hern, who won his third Epsom Derby from a wheelchair after he broke his neck in a hunting accident.

One thing Hendricks said he misses is being able to gallop his stock. First-hand, he used to be able to feel what made each horse tick.

“I would say that for 30 years, I galloped horses about 10 miles a day, so just try to do the math,” he said. “It’s a helpful tool, but I don’t think it’s a key to training success. You think about it, 95 percent of the trainers don’t do it. And the other 5  percent, when they get older and fatter, they quit doing it, yet it doesn’t appear to slow them down.”

Does he ever feel sorry for himself?

“I’m in the right job to cure that,” he said. “Seven days a week, every day of the year. There’s not time for that to even enter your mind.”

Barry Abrams

Barry Abrams takes all of his meals through a tube. He discontinued using his voice machine (shown at right in photo from August 2011), after four months, but sometimes near the end of the day, standing next to him is better than being across the room.

“I have my good days and my bad days,” said a raspy Abrams, who last summer underwent a second surgery since his throat cancer was diagnosed six years before.

The peaks and valleys of the cancer patient have been side by side with Abrams, 58, since 2005. He had a small bump on his neck then, about the size of a marble, and was told that when it was surgically removed he would be all right.

The high-water marks for the Abrams stable came in back-to-back years just a few years after he learned about his cancer: In 2008, the barn just missed the $3 million mark, and purses topped the $2 million mark the next year. The 2008 season included 13 stakes wins, four of them graded. One of them was by Golden Doc A, who won the Grade 1 Las Virgenes and went on to finish fourth in the 2008 Kentucky Oaks.

“For me, it was the Kentucky Derby,” said Abrams, who has never had a Derby starter. “Walking over [to the paddock] with the horse was very exciting. I was almost numb. It was a feeling that was hard to express.

It seemed Abrams was doing all right after his initial surgery.

“Then I got a surprise,” he said.

In discussing his surgery last summer, which took 5 1/2 hours, Abrams said: “There was no choice. It was going to be touch and go, and going in, they said I only had a 5 percent chance. But if they didn’t go in again, the cancer was going to spread all over the place. I came out of it with one of my vocal cords paralyzed.”

With his assistant, Richard Baltus (who has since gone out on his own) in charge last year, Abrams attended the Del Mar races only one day. It was a grim summer, with Abrams’s horses winning only three races and finishing second and third 19 times. Burns’s win in the La Jolla Handicap snapped a 27-race losing streak. Before that win, there were times when Abrams wanted to climb through the screen as he watched on TV.

This year, Abrams is back in full force at Del Mar. He has been attending the races nearly every day, and through Aug. 19, he had won eight races to rank fifth in the standings. Two of his wins came during an eight-day stretch in July, when turf sprinter Lakerville won twice. Lakerville was one jump short at the wire in a bid for a third straight win Aug. 15.

One reason for Abrams to continue training horses  during his battle with cancer is his half-interest in the uber-successful California sire Unusual Heat, who has sired progeny that have averaged $5 million a year in purses since 2008. Unusual Heat’s current star, Acclamation, has won the last two runnings of the Eddie Read Stakes at Del Mar and captured last year’s Pacific Classic. Lakerville also is a son of Unusual Heat, co-bred by Abrams.

The 2012 season has been a much better one for Abrams than his star-crossed 2011, and he is not surprised.

“If I’m at the barn,” he said, “we’re going to win.”

Mike Mitchell

The morning after his brain surgery, Mike Mitchell called Lynne Miller, one of the owners of Camp Victory, with instructions for jockey Joe Talamo in that afternoon’s Triple Bend Handicap at Hollywood Park. It was all Miller could do to hold the phone. Mitchell, 64, was still in the intensive-care unit. A few hours later, Talamo rode Camp Victory to a convincing win in the Grade 1 sprint. Mitchell; his wife, Denise; and their two daughters, watching on a laptop computer, cheered wildly. The ICU at USC will never see another day like it.

“It was crazy,” Denise Mitchell said. “They let us sneak in the laptop.”

While Mike Mitchell’s assistant, Phil D’Amato, was deputizing in the winner’s circle, his boss sat in a chair next to his bed and said: “10 to 1 . . . man!” The names of stakes-winning claims by Mitchell − Kessem Power, Leprechaun Kid, Star Over the Bay, and Symphony Sid are just a few − roll off the tongue, but not many can match the turnaround by Camp Victory. He didn’t even run in a stakes in his first two years on the track, but he has won a pair since Mitchell bought him out of a race for $40,000 during the winter of 2011.

“An unbelievable win,” D’Amato said. “I’ve been with Mike for seven years. He’s like my father. He took me under his wing and taught me everything.”

The week before his surgery, Mitchell won the Hollywood Oaks with Potesta. Then came the MRI that showed a tumor, and Dr. James Tibone, who has raced horses with Mitchell and is the medical director for the USC athletic department, assisted Mitchell in immediately scheduling his surgery.

“I hadn’t been blacking out, not anything like that,” Mitchell said. “But I had been feeling funny. I felt fatigued all the time. Finally, I decided to have them look into it.”

Craig Rounsefell, the Australian bloodstock agent who is married to McCall Mitchell, one of Mike Mitchell’s daughters, immediately flew in to help D’Amato at the barn.

Mitchell made his first post-operative appearance at Hollywood Park on closing day, July 15, when Dhaamer won the Sunset Handicap. Dhaamer, an Irish-bred who raced in England for two years, is a family project from start to finish. Rounsefell had a hand in his private purchase, and he was ridden by Julien Leparoux, who is engaged to Shea Mitchell, another of the trainer’s daughters. Leparoux, riding in a pair of opening-day stakes at Del Mar, brought Mike Mitchell down there as well.

But he’s going to pick his spots until the near-daily 10-minute radiation treatments are out of the way.

“I feel good. I’m getting stronger.” he said. “I’m upbeat about this all the way.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistated the divorce proceedings of Dan Hendricks and Samantha Hendricks and mischaracterized the profession of Samantha Hendricks at the time. Dan Hendricks - not Samantha - filed suit for divorce. Samantha Hendricks was a bloodstock agent, not an exercise rider.