07/17/2007 11:00PM

No quit in Runaway Dancer

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The local media swirled like well-dressed locusts Wednesday morning, celebrating the return of racing to San Diego and alighting on anything that gave off a flicker of interest. To his credit, Dan Hendricks didn't flinch a bit when one of them thrust a microphone in his face and asked him to describe how a Thoroughbred trainer starts a typical day.

She didn't want to know. In Hendricks's case, the beginning of a typical day includes maneuvering from a bed to a wheelchair to a specially customized van, with any number of stops in between to deal elaborately with the little things that the rest of us take for granted.

Don't wait for Hendricks to bore anyone with the details, though. This is his fourth summer on wheels, and he's got it pretty well grooved. His answer for TV consumption had more to do with the challenges of training the racehorse, and the satisfactions of a job well done. Later, in his corner of one of the Del Mar's mega-barns, he added the familiar training mantra, " . . . and see which ones have found a way to hurt themselves since you saw them last."

Whether they train on Polytrack or Cool Whip, horses will continue to sustain athletic injuries as long as the breed draws breath. Soundness always will be the prevailing issue, the only real constant in the very atypical world of a Thoroughbred trainer. Happily, there are a few horses who defy the odds, withstand the rigors of training, and respond to diligent care. Hendricks thanks his stars that one of them lives in his shed row.

Long before Hendricks was rendered paraplegic in that motocross accident, in July 2004, long before 2006 Santa Anita Derby winner Brother Derek came along to make the trainer a popular tale, Runaway Dancer was doing his thing for Dan Hendricks and his owners, the brother-sister team of Michael and Katie Kennedy.

Hendricks has been training Runaway Dancer, 8, since June 2003. Since then, the elegant little gray has won such Southern California events as the Jim Murray Memorial, the Carleton F. Burke Handicap, and, just last Sunday at Hollywood Park, the Sunset Handicap in his fourth try. Sunday's win put Runaway Dancer in rare company. In 67 runnings of the race, the only other Sunset winner in the same age bracket was John Henry, who was 9 when he won in 1984.

"Hey, I've got to keep up with Mandella's 9-year-old," Hendricks said, referring to The Tin Man, trained by former Hendricks mentor Richard Mandella. "He's right around the corner - we ought to get a picture of them together."

Not a bad idea, since the two old goats are not destined to meet in competition any time soon. The Tin Man will be training at Del Mar for a defense of his title in the Arlington Million in Chicago, while Runaway Dancer has the $250,000 Del Mar Handicap on Aug. 26 on his agenda.

For Runaway Dancer, the 1 3/8-mile Del Mar Handicap will be dumbing down, at least in terms of distance. Each of his three major stakes victories came at a 1 1/2 miles, once held as the gold standard of Thoroughbred achievement and still considered the classic distance in most of Europe. (Consider also that the single most exciting race run in the United States this season was the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes.)

"That's why we're looking at the Melbourne Cup," Hendricks said. "Mile-and-a-half races are few and far between, at least for any kind of money. The Melbourne Cup is two miles, which wouldn't bother him at all. But it's a tough ship to Australia, and a long quarantine, and he'd need four months off after he came back. So we're still thinking."

Hendricks is no stranger to the art of squeezing long careers out of perishable Thoroughbreds. He remains proud of the fact that he managed to win a $62,000 claiming race in 1995 with the 10-year-old Breakfast Table. The trainer also pointed to a positive recent trend toward senior citizens other than The Tin Man and Runaway Dancer populating the top of the game.

"Look at Better Talk Now - he's 8 and won the Manhattan," Hendricks said. "Brass Hat is 6, and he just came back to set a track record at Churchill. And Lava Man might be only 6, but he keeps beating just about everything they lead over to him out here."

It should be no surprise that Hendricks defers to such elder statemen. His father, the legendary horseman Lee Hendricks, didn't let a driver's license that said 83 years old stop him from helping his son earlier this year with a problem horse at the track.

"Heck, I thought he'd just work with him in the stall, sack him out a little, stuff on the ground," Hendricks recalled. "Pretty soon he's got him out of the stall and says, 'Guess I'd better get on him.' So he rides him around the barn, then says, 'Got anyplace else we can ride him?' That's when he took him to the track. He might be 83, but he looked 30 again on that horse, and I promise you his rear end never left that saddle."

No surprise, though. Clearly, it's tough to keep those Hendricks horsemen down.