06/26/2002 11:00PM

Holthus: There's nothing else he'd rather do

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - June 1952. Harry S. Truman was in the White House. D. Wayne Lukas was in Wisconsin aspiring to be a basketball coach. Carl Nafzger was a 10-year-old farm boy in Texas. But Bob Holthus was already a Thorough-bred horse trainer in Nebraska.

"I'd been around horses my whole life," said Holthus. "Rode a Shetland pony to my first day of school. Getting a license was just a formality."

He had gotten a license almost as soon as the law would allow, a few days after turning 18. By the next month, he had saddled his first winner, a mare named Colleen who won a $600 claiming sprint at Columbus.

Saturday at Churchill, Holthus will send out U.S. Jets in the Aristides Handicap, a race in which Lukas and Nafzger will have horses, and two trainers born years after Holthus began training - Paul McGee and Ron Ellis - will have the favorites, Bet on Sunshine and No Armistice.

U.S. Jets, who defeated Bet on Sunshine the last time they met, figures as a longshot in the Aristides, but horseplayers learned long ago not to overlook a Holthus horse - that barn, as the saying goes, is always dangerous. And, more than anything, it is that legacy of long-term success that has made Bob Holthus a Midwestern icon.

"He's been able to change through all these years," said Debbie Holthus, who as a longtime assistant to her father. "Mostly the way horses are trained. Used to be that big, heavy exercise riders would lope your horses through long, slow gallops. Now it's changed to lighter and faster, and he's doing it that way, too."

"Bob has certainly had an illustrious career," said Pat Day, the Hall of Fame jockey who will ride No Armistice. "I think probably the biggest thing he has going for him is he's handled everything equally well. This business is chicken one day and feathers the next, and he hasn't allowed any of it to get him too up or too down. He's pretty solid."

Indeed, Holthus is known for his even demeanor, an attitude that fairly shouts that he has been there and done that - and it will take an awfully big surprise to get him upset or excited.

Dying will do that to a man.

"They say I died a few times," said Holthus. One summer day in 1982, he was in his room at the Granada Royal hotel in Omaha, Neb., where he had been running horses at the old Ak-Sar-Ben. He was stricken with a major heart attack and had to be revived several times through electromagnetic shock.

"A heart doctor happened to be there, and he stayed with me until I got to the hospital," said Holthus. "He called me that Christmas and told me he had had reservations at another hotel, but something just told him to pull over and stay there. I guess I'd be dead if it wasn't for him."

So for the last 20 years, Holthus has been living a bonus. His days are highly predictable: Out of bed by 4, train until about 9, out the stable gate to Wagner's for breakfast, go home, head back to the track, home in bed no later than 10.

It is a routine that he loves so much that he never wanted anything else.

"In 1956, I was out of training for about three months," he recalled. "Made the morning line at Miles Park and worked for Daily Racing Form as a clocker. But I had to get back to training."

Since then Holthus has trained more than 70 stakes winners while winning such major races as the Met Mile, Arkansas Derby, and Massachusetts Handicap. Last year alone, he won 10 stakes, including six at Oaklawn Park, where he has won nine training titles.

He credits his daughter and another longtime employee, Kristin Crawford, with handling most of the daily workload. "I mainly just watch for soundness in the horses and tell Debbie and Kristin what to do," said Holthus.

He isn't about to quit doing any of it. "Retire?" he asked. "Why, there's nothing to retire from."

Pick four

The second of the four Churchill Downs Simulcast Network pick fours is set for Saturday. In order, the races are the 10th from Churchill, 12th from Calder, ninth from Arlington, and fifth from Hollywood. Post times range from 5:49 p.m. Eastern to 6:17.

Last Saturday, handle in the pick four, a $1 minimum wager, was $208,904. The bet also will be offered July 6 and 20, with Ellis Park replacing Churchill on the final date.

Firecracker, et al.

The final week of the 52-day spring meet will feature three graded stakes, all of which will have recognizable names and/or heavy favorites.

The first stakes is the $250,000 Firecracker Handicap, a one-mile turf race on Thursday. Congaree is scheduled to make his turf debut in the Grade 2 race.

The second is the $100,000 Debutante Stakes on July 6. Holiday Runner, unbeaten in three starts, will be a heavy favorite in the Grade 3 race for 2-year-old fillies.

The third is the $125,000 Bashford Manor on closing day, July 7. Posse, an easy winner of the Kentucky Breeders' Cup, should be a solid choice in the Grade 2 race for juvenile colts and geldings.

Action on the Kentucky circuit moves to Ellis Park on July 10.

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