10/31/2011 2:25PM

Hovdey: Wally Dollase still looking forward


This reporter was diligently preparing to write a raft of feel-good Breeders’ Cup stories when he took a time out the other night to catch up with the first episode of the new Starz cable TV series “Boss,” starring Kelsey Grammer as an iron-fisted Chicago mayor.

Right off the bat, His Honor is slapped with some bad news about the state of his health. Delivered by a neuroligist in an abandoned slaughterhouse, this is what the mayor was told he had:

“It’s called Lewy Body. Abnormal, microscopic amounts of protein depositing themselves in the nerve cells of your cerebral cortex … destroying them over time, atrophying the frontal and temporal lobes. It’s rare. It’s not Alzheimer’s, it’s not Parkinson’s, but like them degenerative progression is slow, irreversible, and there is no known cure.”

After that, all the dirty politics of “Boss” figures to play like petty backdrop. I’m hooked.

Two days later, this same reporter got a phone call from a friend in the business. Cincy Dollase, the wife of trainer Wally Dollase, wanted me to know that Wally was retiring and that the stable reins would be taken up by their daughter Aimee. Dollase is 74, so he certainly had a right to ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of his labor, not to mention a herd of grandchildren. But he’d always seemed like the kind of guy who would need to be pulled away from the barn kicking and screaming. Then Cincy added:

“He’s got Lewy Body disease.”

Now officially freaked out, I dug into the pile of Google long enough to learn that Lewy Body has been identified as the cause of anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of all elderly dementia. That’s a big spread, mostly because the disease is so difficult to diagnose, hiding as it does behind the symptoms of the more familiar Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Still, the number of Lewy Body cases in the U.S. hovers on either side of a million, and Wally Dollase is one of them.

Breeders’ Cup fans will readily recognize Dollase as the trainer of Jewel Princess, winner of the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Woodbine over a field that included future Hall of Famer Serena’s Song, the Argentine star Different, and Breeders’ Cup winner My Flag. Jewel Princess earned the Eclipse Award for older female that year as well.

Training a stable that rarely numbered more than a couple dozen head, Dollase also came tantalizingly close to winning four other Breeders’ Cup events.

In 1990 the trainer thought Itsallgreektome had the BC Mile at Belmont Park in the bag when suddenly 54-year-old Lester Piggott, having only recently spent a year in jail for tax fraud, brought Royal Academy out of the clouds to win by a neck.

The following year an older and even better Itsallgreektome was at Churchill Downs for the BC Turf. Once again he outran them all, with the exception of the French invader Miss Alleged, who got up to win by half a length as part of the mutuel field, at 42-1. It was of some consolation that Itsallgreektome was later named male turf champion.

In 1997 Dollase’s Travers winner, Deputy Commander, could not do much about Skip Away’s six-length romp in the Classic. At least he was best of the rest, and second was worth a cool $880,000.

As for Good Journey, Dollase’s hope in the 2002 Mile, how many times did you see Pat Day open daylight in the stretch for a million bucks and get caught? It took two of Europe’s best – Domedriver and Rock of Gibraltar – to do it, and then only by three-quarters and a nose.

Memories now. Memories one can only hope Dollase retains in some form as his condition gives way to the effects of the disease. There’s a whole pile of medications available to address the effects of Lewy Body, some targeting the symptoms that mimic Parkinson’s, others for those echoing Alzheimer’s.

“It’s a hard balancing act,” Cincy Dollase said. “What he can take for one thing, and make him feel better physically, can be worse for him in other ways.”

Such considerations are at the center of Dollase’s existence right now, though when reached at home in Louisville this weekend, he was looking more forward than back.

“If you see how many pills I have, I’ll have to live another 150 years just to take them all,” Dollase said. “I’ve got some good doctors here, and it’s not as bad as you’d think. I don’t bet on the horses anyway, so I don’t have to be a hundred and ten percent mentally.”

Even as Dollase’s speech has slowed, his flat, upper Midwest accent and self-deprecating humor seem to be intact. While he is able he will visit his daughter’s stable as often as possible, offering encouragement and counsel.

“I’ve been very fortunate to acquire quite a few well-bred horses and make stake horses out of them,” Dollase said. “I’ve been lucky, too. Of course, I worked hard. Anybody who does well in this business has to work very hard. But I always enjoyed exactly what I was doing. All I needed was horses. And one dog.”

That one dog is a white Jack Russell terrier named Chloe, who clings to her master as if she knows what’s going on.

“My attitude is good,” Dollase said. “I’ve got a dog that keeps me happy, and a wife that is special, special, special. She wants to see me around a few more years anyway.”

Tom Kane, the flamboyant boss of “Boss,” is a terrific fictional character. Wally Dollase, who had a remarkable, sometimes soaring career, is heart-achingly real. There are those who prefer life when it imitates art, especially the heroic tales, in which family stables win big races and brave people overcome rare diseases. But it doesn’t often happen that way because rules are rules and it is art that imitates life, no matter what the news, for the simple reason that life was always here first.