05/04/2017 4:40PM

Hovdey: Hollendorfer hopes he has Derby antidote

Email
Vassar Photography/Golden Gate Fields
Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer is seeking his first Kentucky Derby victory with Battle of Midway.

Anybody can train the winner of a Kentucky Derby. Anybody.

You can be born in a Georgia log cabin like Tom Smith, a Yorkshire mining village like John Longden, or a Havana barrio like Lazaro Barrera.

You can win it in your first try, like Ben Jones, Frank Childs, or Jim Fitzsimmons, or in your only try, like Don Cameron, George Conway, or Neil Drysdale.

A winning trainer can be as young as Hollie Hughes, who was 27, or James Rowe Sr., who was 24, or wait until deep into the twilight of a satisfying career, like Charlie Whittingham, Mack Miller, or Art Sherman.

On Saturday at Churchill Downs, the winning trainer could be from Australia (Ian Wilkes), Venezuela (Antonio Sano), the United Arab Emirates (Saeed bin Suroor), or Britain (Graham Motion). He – and for 142 years, it’s always been “he” – could train a sprawling, multistate stable (Steve Asmussen, Mark Casse, Todd Pletcher) or a boutique barn of polished gems (John Shirreffs).

He could even be the son of a tool-and-die factory worker who came to Thoroughbred racing fresh out of college with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, no racetrack experience, and a burning desire to escape the cold winters of his native Ohio.

There is no avoiding the idea that Jerry Hollendorfer has the organization and the clients to win a Kentucky Derby at some point. After all, he is a Hall of Famer with more than 7,000 wins, three champions, and major stakes victories all over the map.

It might even happen as soon as Saturday in the 143rd Kentucky Derby with Battle of Midway, a son of the late Smart Strike owned by South America’s Don Alberto Stud and Kentucky’s WinStar Farm, even though the handsome colt does not have the Hollendorfer look of a seasoned pro.

In fact, Battle of Midway is one of four horses in the field of 20 who has yet to win a stakes race. He has run four times, winning twice and appearing most recently in the Santa Anita Derby, in which he finished half a length behind the victorious Gormley after pushing a fast pace.

In any other hands, it could be suggested that Derby fever has taken hold, but Hollendorfer is inoculated by nature. He loves to run, but he hates to lose, which is why his horses are rarely overmatched.

“There have been so many different kinds of horses who have won the Kentucky Derby – some you could have predicted and some not expected at all,” Hollendorfer said this week. “I don’t know how folks feel about my horse. But he’s definitely done enough for me that he deserves a chance to run in there.”

Hollendorfer, who turns 71 in June, landed in the Bay Area in his 20s and wandered into the racetrack, where he eventually worked for trainers Jerry Dutton and Jerry Fanning. Yes, there is a pattern.

Dutton, who died in 2015, was a master with 2-year-olds, while the recently retired Fanning trained top horses of all shapes and styles. Between them, they had only three Kentucky Derby starters.

“Trainers don’t teach training,” Hollendorfer said of his mentors. “You learn by watching them.”

Hollendorfer learned enough to spread his wings in 1979, hanging out a shingle at Bay Meadows. He won his first stakes race in 1986 and made his first national impact in 1989, when he took the California-bred King Glorious to New Jersey to win the Haskell Invitational.

Through the 1980s and ’90s, Hollendorfer’s dozens of titles and thousands of winners at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields became a steady drumbeat ignored by a national audience as B-circuit background noise. Not even a pair of wins in the Kentucky Oaks – before the Kentucky Oaks was a big deal – could budge his label as a big fish in the small pond of Northern California racing.

Then, as the 21st century began to unfurl, Hollendorfer altered his business plan to establish a foothold in Southern California, where the money lived and reputations were made. He hired former Bobby Frankel assistant Dan Ward to run the barn.

The trainer and his group of loyal partners began buying better horses fit for graded races. Before too long, he was campaigning major stakes winners like Heatseeker, Hystericalady, Sahara Sky, Dakota Phone, and Tuscan Evening.

In 2010, Blind Luck gave the trainer his third Kentucky Oaks win on her way to an Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly. In 2011, Hollendorfer was elected to the Hall of Fame.

“I guess she was the push I needed,” the trainer said.

Though his record needed no validation, Hollendorfer has been blessed with his two best horses since joining the Hall.

Shared Belief, a son of Candy Ride, was the champion 2-year-old male of 2013 who defeated his elders in the 2014 Pacific Classic and won the 2015 Santa Anita Handicap, then died from a sudden colic attack later that year. Songbird was the 2-year-old filly champion of 2015 and 3-year-old filly champion last year, unbeaten but for Beholder’s nose in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She is nearing her debut as a 4-year-old.

As far as the Derby goes, Hollendorfer has saddled five previous runners and has yet to hit the board. Only once did he arrive at Churchill Downs with confidence.

“I think my best shot was with Event of the Year,” Hollendorfer said, referring to the son of Seattle Slew. “He got hurt in his last workout before the Derby.”

That was a tough one. Event of the Year was from a 1998 group of 3-year-olds that included Real Quiet, Indian Charlie, Victory Gallop, Favorite Trick, and Artax. He was unbeaten in four races for Hollendorfer, including the Spiral Stakes at Turfway, before sustaining a slab fracture in his right knee in a work at Churchill Downs eight days before the race (NBC’s Donna Barton Brothers was aboard). As a 4-year-old, Event of the Year won the Strub Stakes and finished second in the Santa Anita Handicap for Richard Mandella.

“Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt so bad he couldn’t come back and run again,” Hollendorfer said. “Even though I didn’t get to train him, I was happy for the horse.”

Hollendorfer’s Derby luck did not improve. In 2000, he won the Spiral again with Globalize, a son of Summer Squall. This time, they made it all the way through the entry stage before the penny dropped.

Two days before the race, on the way back to the barn, Globalize reached over and bit his pony. The offended pony retaliated with a kick. Globalize needed 12 stitches in a hock, while his trainer tried to figure out what the Derby had against him.

“It’s almost as if fate decides the Derby a lot of times,” Hollendorfer said. “But I think the key factors are pretty simple. How is your horse coming into the race, and can they get a mile and a quarter? As far as this year, we have to try because we have a horse that’s going good right now, and we think he can go on.”

At this point, Hollendorfer is on that shortlist of active Hall of Famers who have yet to win a Derby. They include Ron McAnally, Bill Mott, Mandella, and 2016 inductee Steve Asmussen, who has three in the field Saturday. Hollendorfer does not mind being mentioned in their company, but he’d just as soon jump ship.

“I get a reputation that I don’t smile too much, but I’m a happy guy, believe me,” Hollendorfer said. “And a very, very fortunate guy who appreciates what I’ve got. But if a trainer tells you he doesn’t care about winning the Kentucky Derby, he’s not telling the truth.”

It has been on his mind for a while, whether he knew it or not.

“Ever since I was about 8, I can remember watching the Kentucky Derby on TV,” Hollendorfer said. “As a little kid, you always remember the twin spires, the mark of Churchill Downs. So, the first time I was there, it was a big thrill to see those twin spires in person, especially at the Derby. It’s still a thrill, and if it’s meant to be, someday I’ll win one.”