03/31/2017 1:20PM

Hovdey: Training a good one was vintage Fanning


Jerry Fanning does not need to explain why he is retiring. He is 84. He is in good health. He has friends and family he hasn’t seen for 20 years or more, and he’d like to pay them a leisurely visit without looking over his shoulder, wondering what might be going wrong back at the barn.

Besides, after 60 years at the same job, the job doesn’t really feel the same. He has ridden the roller coaster of his profession through thick and thin, winning major races all over the place while earning the respect of his peers as a horseman who knew when to fire, and when to fall back. Still, there comes a time when ambition wanes and memories are no longer made.

“The game has changed, and the trainers coming along change with it,” Fanning said. “Everything evolves – I evolved out.”

Fanning laughed at the line. That’s always been his style. A quip from the hip, a grin to make sure you got it, then on to the next stall, where a whole different challenge would await. Time spent at the Fanning stable was a treat, where horses hung around for careers that lasted long enough to get to know them well and recognize them by sight.

At any particular moment, the Fanning outfit was home to Vanity winner A Kiss for Luck, Santa Anita Derby winner Terlago, Spinster Stakes winner Top Corsage, Goodwood Handicap winner Present Value, Longacres Mile winner Drouilly, Swaps Stakes winner Hyperborean, the durable turf horse Top Crowd, and Our First Delight, queen of the bullring.

Fanning handled young guns like Gonquin, a winner of Keeneland’s Breeders’ Futurity, and imports like Ancestral, who took the San Diego on dirt and the All American on grass. He could lay claim to a shooting star like Akinemod, who won six of 10, including the El Encino Stakes by 18 lengths, as well as world-class sprinters like Kfar Tov, Bruho, and Rebs Golden Ale, who was by Reb’s Policy.

“Reb’s Policy was probably the fastest horse I ever had, and maybe the best horse all together,” Fanning said. “When he was right, I don’t think he ever got beat.”

As a stallion, Reb’s Policy sired not only Rebs Golden Ale, a winner of the Bing Crosby, and the champion Quarter Horse Town Policy but also Little Reb, who shocked Horse of the Year Affirmed in the 1979 Malibu Stakes.

That was not the first time Fanning knocked off a big horse or a big race when no one was paying attention. He won the 1983 Florida Derby with Croeso at 85-1. He won the 1991 San Luis Rey with Pleasant Variety at 29-1. And in the 1993 Santa Anita Handicap, Fanning didn’t get all the candy with Star Recruit at 59-1, but he only missed by a nose.

“I think he was in front a jump before the wire and a jump after,” Fanning said. “But that’s not where they pay.”

Sir Beaufort, the horse who beat them, was trained by Charlie Whittingham. Whittingham did that to a lot of people, so Fanning did not take it personally.

“Charlie just laughed,” Fanning said. “He never apologized for winning.”

Fanning not only had to train against Whittingham but also Hall of Famers Robert Wheeler, Ron McAnally, Gary Jones, Bobby Frankel, Neil Drysdale, Richard Mandella, D. Wayne Lukas, Lazaro Barrera, and Jack Van Berg. When they lost, it was news.

Whittingham stood to cash a million-dollar bonus in the 1985 Sunset Handicap with Greinton, who had won the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Californian to set the stage. Fanning ruined Charlie’s day with Kings Island, who went wire to wire under Fernando Toro.

“From a mile and a quarter on over firm turf, Kings Island was as good as any horse around at that time,” Fanning said.

Fanning’s masterpiece was Desert Wine, a stakes winner at 2 who gave his trainer a peek at the top of the mountain by finishing second in the 1983 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, both run over wet tracks.

“I can’t think of anything I could have done to change things,” Fanning said. “Certainly not the weather. Two days after the Preakness, he popped an abscess out of a hind foot, which had been bothering him since the Santa Anita Derby.”

Desert Wine returned as a 4-year-old to win the Californian, the Strub Stakes, and the Hollywood Gold Cup. His earnings of $1.6 million topped all the sons and daughters of Damascus.

Fanning nurtured horsemen as well as horses. Jerry Hollendorfer and Jack Carava cut their teeth with Fanning as young trainers. Frank Olivares and Danny Sorenson owed the bedrock of long careers as jockeys to Fanning’s patronage. When Nestor Capitaine hung up the white pants, he became Fanning’s assistant and stands to take over the handful of horses they train.

“He’s a good horseman,” Fanning said. “I hope they give him a chance.”

There are few professions populated to any degree by people in their 80s, although horse trainers tend to hang on for dear life. In doing so, they risk diluting the memory of great careers, but Fanning is retiring while his record still withstands scrutiny from all angles.

“I’ve been winding down for a while,” Fanning said. “Things have really changed for me over the last 10 years, to a point where it just wasn’t fun anymore. But it sure was fun while it lasted.”