06/07/2009 11:00PM

Life breeds a certain reality

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Barbara D. Livingston
Chocolate Candy dries off Wednesday at Belmont Park, where he went directly after the Kentucky Derby.

The last time Jerry Hollendorfer made an impression in New York, the first George Bush was in the White House and MC Hammer was a recording star. This is significant, because Mr. Hammer was the high-profile owner of Lite Light, winner of the 1991 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs and then later the Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont Park.

It was the race in between, however, that still stirs the blood. Lite Light and reigning division champ Meadow Star threw down like heavyweights in the nine-furlong Mother Goose Stakes that spring, and at the end they were all but inseparable. LeRoy Jolley, who trained the victorious Meadow Star, christened it the "mother of all Gooses."

"Have you seen the photo?" Hollendorfer asked when the subject was raised Thursday morning. "I've got it at home, in the archives. I really think they should have called it a dead heat."

Hollendorfer is back from his Northern California base to take a crack at another New York classic on Saturday, when he sends forth Jenny Craig's Chocolate Candy in the 141st running of the Belmont Stakes. Chocolate Candy finished a distant fifth in the Kentucky Derby - everything was a distant something to Mine That Bird that day - but Hollendorfer was not discouraged. Besides, said the trainer, the Belmont was the race they had in mind all along as Chocolate Candy's best chance to snag a Triple Crown event.

Hollendorfer said it with a straight face - he's a very serious guy - but he knew it sounded a little strange, as if the Derby were just a gaudy side trip on the way to New York. His point, though was sound. The Derby is what the Brits would call a one-off, a race so truly weird and comprehensively unique that no horse ever faces anything like it, either before or after.

Neither can anyone be taken seriously if they say they have a plan to win a Kentucky Derby. If they do, you have permission to laugh hysterically and run from the room. One need only mention such existential concepts as "Giacomo" or "Mine That Bird" - or try "Canonero" - to illustrate the fact that the Kentucky Derby flushes a lot of hard work and careful consideration right down the Ohio River.

The Belmont, on the other hand, is a more rational goal. True, it is run at an unusual distance, but they're all in the same mile-and-a-half boat, and traditional racing tactics and field size still apply. Unreasonable expectations can cloud the running, particularly when a Triple Crown is on the line. Kent Desormeaux, who has mastered Belmont's layout by now, admits to this day he moved too soon with Real Quiet in 1998, while in 2004 Smarty Jones let himself be goaded into a fast quarter down the backstretch, leaving him with nothing for those final 50 yards. Both finished a bitter second, and the Crown was lost.

When Hollendorfer says that the Belmont was on his mind for Chocolate Candy since early spring, he makes sense. Long and tall, with a mischievous teenage streak, the Candy Ride colt was still evolving even as he won two stakes at Golden Gate and finished a solid second in the Santa Anita Derby. Those performances pushed him to Kentucky, true enough. But it is significant that as soon as he emerged unscathed from the Derby, Hollendorfer sent him straight to Belmont Park, where he has trained for the past month.

"This horse is looking pretty cool, huh?" Hollendorfer said, as assistant Galen May put the finishing touches on Chocolate Candy after a bath. "That's what it takes to win one of these more than anything - a horse who stays sound and holds his weight after all you put them through to get to these classics. And he's held his weight good. He's not a big, robust horse behind, but he covers a lot of ground."

Winning the Belmont with Chocolate Candy would fit right in with Hollendorfer's record outside California, which also includes a second Kentucky Oaks with Pike Place Dancer, a Haskell Invitational with King Glorious, the Jim Beam with Event of the Year, and a pair of Molly Pitchers and a Delaware Handicap with Hystericalady. Hollendorfer, who turns 63 on June 18, is also one of only four trainers to win more than 5,000 races.

This year Chocolate Candy has been a pleasure, along with the emergence of the European filly Tuscan Evening. But the elevator has run both ways. Blue Exit, an emerging powerhouse, was on his way to becoming the best older horse Hollendorfer ever trained when he suffered fatal injuries on the final turn of the Santa Anita Handicap in March.

"That was probably my most shocking moment in horse racing," said Hollendorfer, who has been training for 30 years. "I kept looking in that direction and saying, 'That can't be my horse.' This horse was the soundest horse I ever trained. We never had to do anything with him, never a problem, and then that happened to him."

The death of Blue Exit was bad enough. There was one point, though, that Hollendorfer feared for the life of his wife, Janet, who has been an indispensible partner in their training operation throughout their marriage of 26 years.

"She was having headaches, and then had a little bump on her head," Hollendorfer said. "But we're always getting bumped around at the barn, hitting your head on the crossbar, going into stalls. Then one day I was talking to her on the phone. I kept asking her a question, but she never answered. When I saw her later I asked her about it. She said she wanted to answer, but couldn't."

Other symptoms began to emerge. When one day Janet could not sign her name to a check, they pressed their doctors for more exhaustive tests. That's when a tumor was discovered.

"That was in January," Hollendorfer went on. "We were pretty upset about it. But then we discovered that there are a whole lot of people in the same situation. More than I ever imagined. The tumor was in a good place. It was growing out instead of in, which accounted for the bump. She had the surgery, then she had a little setback with an infection where it was removed, and since then she's been doing fine. First they told us it was not malignant, but then they decided she needed radiation treatments, just to make sure nothing comes back.

"She's back to work now doing her things at the barn and riding her pony," Hollendorfer added. "She just doesn't come out in the afternoon anymore. But that's okay. If we don't win as many races, I really don't care."