11/26/2015 12:14PM

Hovdey: Om could provide healing in Hollywood Derby


He was doing okay until they started calling the names.

Dan Hendricks, friend of the family, was sitting in his wheelchair on the tarmac of the Miramar Air Station in San Diego on the afternoon of Nov. 13 as the memory of Maj. Taj Sareen was celebrated by his fellow Marines.

Sareen, a native of San Francisco, was killed Oct. 21 near an air base in England when he lost control of his F/A-18C Hornet fighter jet shortly after takeoff. According to reports, Sareen did not eject until he had steered his disabled aircraft safely clear of a populated area, and by the time he ejected, it was too late. He was 34, and he was on his way home after a six-month deployment in the Middle East.

“It was very fitting, and very touching,” said Hendricks. “His father gave a very nice speech. After that, they called out the names of the squadron, and when they got to his name, they called out three, four, five times, louder and louder. He doesn’t answer. The planes flew over, with the one missing in formation. Then they played taps. I know it’s all about closure, but as a father, I just don’t know how people can deal with that.”

Distractions sometimes help, which is why Hendricks hopes Kulbhushan and Shashi Sareen will be able to lose themselves in the sight of their talented 3-year-old Om running freely on the lead once again at Del Mar when he heads a field of 14 in Saturday’s $300,000 Hollywood Derby.

Even then, the memories will weigh heavily. Taj Sareen was at Del Mar with his parents in August 2014 when Om won what turned out to be the most notorious maiden race of the summer, and it was not because he clicked at odds of 22-1. It was because American Pharoah finished fourth that day in his racing debut.

As the 2015 Triple Crown unfolded, Om’s line lingered in American Pharoah’s past performances. He became the horse who beat the unbeatable, never mind that Om did not race again for eight months following the maiden win.

“His timetable was just six months behind most 3-year-olds,” said Hendricks, who has trained such talented young runners as Brother Derek, Daytona, Smooth Player, and Stylish Star. “It was only when we got back to Santa Anita from Del Mar this year that he was really starting to mature.”

The immature version of Om won the Del Mar Derby by 2 1/4 lengths on Sept. 6 over the same course and 1 1/8-mile distance as the Hollywood Derby. He came right back to win the Twilight Derby at Santa Anita on Oct. 24 by the same margin, but to the eye of his trainer, it was a more impressive race.

Since stretching out around two turns, the freewheeling Om had been caught twice in stakes company before winning the Del Mar Derby. Hendricks knew enough not to draw unreasonable conclusions from one good race, and he was halfway waiting for the other pedigree shoe to drop. Om is by the sprinter Munnings, a son of the sprinter Speightstown.

“At Santa Anita, it was like the distance was no problem at all,” Hendricks said. “He was relaxed. He had a good kick. And he’s been acting even better since then.”

In a conversation during Breeders’ Cup week at Keeneland, Chad Brown picked a Californian’s brain about Om, wondering if he was for real. Brown was assured that he was, which is probably why the trainer sent four from New York to face Om in the Hollywood Derby. The nine others come from the stables of Bill Mott, Tom Proctor, Jeremy Noseda, Eoin Harty, Doug O’Neill, Jeff Mullins, Phil D’Amato, and George Papaprodromou, making for a capacity field.

“Yeah, they showed me a lot of respect by staying in the barn,” Hendricks said. “Guess they were only barely able to fill the race.”

This is classic Hendricks, whose dry sense of humor has survived intact the 12 years he has spent as a paraplegic since fracturing his spine in a motocross accident in July 2004. He lost the ability to throw a leg over a problem horse, or pony one around, or even lead one by the shank. As a result, Hendricks discovered that the simple act of closely observing his horses, in all their individual eccentricities, was every bit as valuable as training from the saddle.

Om has represented some of Hendricks’s best, most patient work, which now, in the wake of Taj Sareen’s death, has come to mean much more than just a good horse winning nice races. Often when Om ran, the Sareens would Skype with their deployed son to share the experience, and his presence will be felt on Saturday at Del Mar when a group of his fellow airmen from the Red Devils Fighter Attack Squadron join Taj Sareen’s parents at the track.

“When your kid first gets a driver’s license, you worry every day that something might happen,” said Hendricks, who has three sons. “They had to do the same thing with their son, except with fighter planes.

“What happened is something you never get over,” Hendricks added. “You only get used to it. I just hope the colt can give them something else to think about, if only for a little bit.”