08/30/2013 3:48PM

Jay Hovdey: Hollendorfer looks to double up in Del Mar Derby

Barbara D. Livingston
Jerry Hollendorfer has a horse for each division of the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby.

For those who view the current state of Thoroughbred racing as a glass half empty and draining fast, there is Sunday’s 69th running of the Del Mar Derby offering at least a tiny sliver of hope.

There were 25,212 foals born in the United States in 2010 and registered with the Jockey Club. Of those, 21 were entered to run in the nine-furlong Del Mar Derby, plus one each from England, Canada, and France. The anticipation of such an onslaught prompted Del Mar racing chief Tom Robbins to go straight to the couch cushions in search of enough scratch to increase the original $300,000 purse to a pair of Derby divisions worth $250,000 apiece. Thankfully, it’s been a good meet. Each half has 10 runners and two also-eligibles.

As a main-track race from 1945 to 1969, the Del Mar Derby had very little national impact, despite being won by very solid horses like Bolero, Great Circle, The Shoe, Speak John, and Drin. The nation’s best 3-year-olds were otherwise occupied during the summer at Arlington Park and Saratoga, and the Del Mar event, at its richest, was worth just $30,000.

When moved to the grass in 1970, though, the Del Mar Derby took on a life of its own. The burgeoning turf circuit in Southern California was reason enough to own a grass horse, and the Del Mar race became a legitimate testing ground for horses who would do some heavy lifting down the line. The list of winners over the past 43 years includes Text, Relaunch, Tsunami Slew, Tight Spot, Da Hoss, Val Royal, and Twirling Candy.

The split of the 2013 Del Mar Derby is not unprecedented, but it is highly unusual. It happened once before as a grass event – the very first one, in fact, in 1970 when War Heim and Mayhedo split the pot. Jerry Hollendorfer, who has a runner in each division on Sunday, was asked what he was up to in 1970. He smiled, sort of, at the thought.

“I wasn’t paying much attention,” the Hall of Famer confessed.

In fact, Hollendorfer was 24 at the time and working as a groom in Northern California, pretty much clueless as to what would come next other than the fact he knew it would be something around the racetrack. As he stood on the second-story porch of his Del Mar barn, overlooking the track at the point of the backstretch chute, a reminder of just how far he’d come passed beneath him, on the way home from a gallop.

“There’s Sweet Lulu, back from Saratoga,” Hollendorfer said as the unbeaten winner of last weekend’s Test Stakes strolled by. He was asked if he visited his Hall of Fame plaque, hung in 2011, while he was in Saratoga Springs.

“No, I was kind of busy,” he said. “I’ve never even been to the Hall of Fame yet as a fan, just to look around. But I do love winning a race back there. Even though our stakes fields in California can be small, it still takes a very good horse to win. I think we prove that when we go East to compete.”

The Hollendorfer stable provided proof earlier this year when Sahara Sky went East to take the Metropolitan Mile from Cross Traffic, subsequent winner of the Whitney. The next significant road trip could again involve Sweet Lulu, who will be pointed in the direction of the $1 million Cotillion Stakes at Parx Racing on Sept. 21 and a possible showdown with the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama winner Princess of Sylmar.

But the Del Mar Derby was the task at hand, and Hollendorfer wasn’t counting any chickens. He won a very good version of the Derby in 2009 with Rendezvous, who closed like a comet to edge Virginia Derby winner Battle of Hastings and future Eclipse champ Acclamation. This time around, he will be fielding the Broken Vow colt Outside Nashville in the first Derby division and the Olympio gelding Olympic Blue in the second, the same Olympic Blue who won a maiden race last January for an $8,000 claiming tag.

“At least he’s in what looks like the weaker division,” Hollendorfer said, if by weaker he meant facing American Derby winner Infinite Magic, Arlington Classic winner General Election, La Jolla Handicap winner Dice Flavor, and Hill Prince runner-up Play It Loud.

“The key to his turnaround was getting him on turf,” Hollendorfer noted. “That’s pretty obvious.”

While trained by Ellen Jackson at Golden Gate, Olympic Blue won a claiming race for $12,500 in March. Then Jackson put her horse on the grass for a lopsided starter allowance score in April, and Hollendorfer took notice. Soon after, Olympic Blue had a new home. He hit the board in the Tsunami Slew at Hollywood and a division of the Oceanside on Del Mar’s opening day, then slipped into a starter allowance on grass against older horses. His stylish win punched a ticket to the Derby. Outside Nashville is a $115,000 Hollendorfer purchase as a 2-year-old.

“I named him for a line from a song I heard on the radio,” Hollendorfer said, and if what he heard was a version of “Outside the Nashville City Limits,” written by Joan Baez, he picked a mighty fine song.

Nevertheless, Outside Nashville had not run farther than 6 1/2 furlongs and never tried grass until his last start in the Robert Dupret Derby at Santa Rosa. The reaction was similar to Olympic Blue’s “where’s this been all my life?” as Outside Nashville trotted home by 4 1/2 lengths.

Now he’s being tossed in against Gervinho and Rising Legend, winners of the Oceanside divisions, along with Swaps winner Chief Havoc and fellow stakes winners Gabriel Charles, Redwood Kitten, and Procurement. Hollendorfer likes the fact that there are two Del Mar Derbies on the line and contention runs deep in both.

“I think it’s a very good sign,” he said. “To me, it means there are people willing to spend money on horses of potential quality. And anyway, it’s not supposed to be easy to win races like this. Either one.”