08/21/2008 12:00AM

Hendricks only gets stronger

Benoit & Associates
Trainer Dan Hendricks's barn has increased in quality since his accident in July 2004.

DEL MAR, Calif. - A lot can happen in four years. Prepare for another Olympic games, complete a presidential term, or, in the case of trainer Dan Hendricks, come to the sober realization that the rest of your life will, indeed, be spent in a wheelchair.

"After four years, it's setting in. I'm accepting it, pretty much," Hendricks, 49, said at his Del Mar barn. "I'm accepting everything that goes along with being paralyzed. It's getting easier to live with. Still, it's not something you want to go through. That's for sure."

In July 2004, Hendricks's life changed in a most horrifying fashion. He was paralyzed from the waist down when thrown from an off-road vehicle. Six weeks later, though, he was back at work.

"Some people take longer than that for a vacation," said Hendricks's close friend and mentor, trainer Richard Mandella.

There have been more highs and lows since then. On a professional front, Hendricks has seen the quality of stock improve significantly in his 28-horse barn.

"I think it was the combination of two or three things," Hendricks said.

First was Brother Derek, who won the 2006 Santa Anita Derby and was a leading contender in that year's Kentucky Derby.

"He gave people confidence that I could handle a top-tier horse," Hendricks said. "I had had them before, but not one that prominent."

Then came, as Hendricks calls it, "the youth movement."

"Alex Solis Jr. and Rebecca Curtis started buying European horses, nice-quality horses," Hendricks said.

Their best find is Daytona, a two-time Grade 1 winner who runs Sunday in the Grade 2, $400,000 Del Mar Mile. That is scheduled to serve as Daytona's final prep for the Breeders' Cup Mile on Oct. 25 at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting.

"That's been the plan since the beginning of the year," Hendricks said. "We don't want to overrace him. We want his big race to be in the Breeders' Cup. He does well with six to eight weeks between races. Everything's going great with him."

But wait, there's more. On Saturday, Hendricks will send out Runaway Dancer, 9, for his first start of the year and 43rd lifetime start, in the Grade 2, $250,000 Del Mar Handicap. Hendricks also has young horses by the sires A.P. Indy, Awesome Again, El Prado, Rahy, Tale of the Cat, and Thunder Gulch.

Mandella believes the initial support of Hendricks's owners - he didn't lose one client after the accident - and a renewed focus on his craft has resulted in, four years later, Hendricks having the strongest barn of his career.

"They could have closed up camp, but they supported him," said Mandella, whose Del Mar horses are stabled adjacent to those of Hendricks. "To have what happened to him, you hate to say it made him a better trainer, because he was good already, but I guess his focus was really sharpened. Maybe the thing with him was, you don't know what you have until you almost lose it. It made him realize how much he loved it."

Hendricks said Mandella was instrumental in getting him through the initial uncertainty.

"He never let me doubt that I could do it," Hendricks said. "I'd have hated to be in a job I couldn't do anymore. At least I didn't have to re-learn an occupation."

On the personal front, however, Hendricks's marriage to his wife, Samantha, reached the breaking point.

His getting paralyzed "didn't help matters at all," Hendricks said.

"It's such a tough situation to deal with," he said. "You can't explain. That first year was so tough. It made things really hard."

Hendricks now lives in a new home in Glendora, Calif., less than a mile from Samantha and their three sons - Christopher, 17, Matthew, 15, and Gregory, 12.

"They're starting to drive," Hendricks said. "Stay off the roads."

That biting humor, and his flinty personality, has helped Hendricks cope. There is no one more wickedly pointed than Hendricks when bantering with other trainers during morning workouts, and he gets it as good as he gives.

"He pushes a button now, and he's at his barn in two seconds," Mandella said. "I bought a pair of roller skates so I can grab onto the back of his wheelchair and have him pull me along."

A year ago, Mandella and Hendricks were at a 2-year-old sale in Florida with owner B. Wayne Hughes. They had been looking at horses for hours. "I started complaining that my feet were starting to hurt," Mandella said.

"Dan told Wayne to tell me to stop complaining," Mandella said. "Just when you think the world is being hard on you, you look over there. He makes it look easy."

Hendricks said he's "totally self-sufficient," except that "everything takes twice as long as before. Shower. Getting in the car. It takes an hour to do something that used to take a half-hour."

His new home "has just one step in the whole house."

"I had to make very few adjustments, just to the bathrooms," he said.

Hendricks uses a motorized wheelchair in the mornings because it is easier for him to navigate the piles of dirt and other obstacles in the stables.

"I don't think I could have designed a better chair," he said.

But the rest of the time, such as at the races in the afternoon, Hendricks prefers a wheelchair he propels with his hands.

He drives his car with hand controls.

"That part is easy," Hendricks said. "It's a hassle getting in and out of a car."

He has developed a passion for poker.

"It's probably my biggest hobby now," he said.

And he still quenches his need for speed by driving go-karts that are equipped for paralyzed drivers.

"This place I go has the brake and the throttle on the steering wheel," Hendricks said. "It's fun to do stuff like that. It kind of makes you forget everything, and you get an adrenaline rush. I never was one for fishing and bowling."