08/29/2003 11:00PM

Super summer for Hendricks

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Over the next eight days, trainer Dan Hendricks will run three horses in three stakes races at Del Mar, a dizzying pace for his moderate-sized, 25-horse barn. He begins on Monday with Reba's Gold, who, both literally and figuratively, is the barn's big horse. Rhianna, who prefers to go barefoot at the beach, follows on either Thursday or Sunday, and then one week from Monday, Don'tsellmeshort seeks to bookend this track's stakes for California-bred 2-year-old males.

All three have a strong chance of winning, and adding to what has been a successful summer for the 44-year-old Hendricks. Entering Saturday's races, Hendricks had won with 5 of 21 starters, placing him in a tie for ninth in the trainers' standings. Two of his victories have come with Runaway Dancer, who has developed into a promising long-distance turf runner.

"It's been a good year," Hendricks said at his Del Mar barn on Saturday morning. "Since the middle of last year, things have picked up. We're having fun with it."

Hendricks has been training on his own for 17 years, after first apprenticing under Willard Proctor and then Richard Mandella. He is old school, in both temperament and philosophy. He prefers to eschew the spotlight, and patiently guides his horses to long, productive careers.

Reba's Gold, owned by "Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek, is the poster boy. Now age 6, he has made 32 starts and earned $644,922 while competing below the top tier; his biggest victory last year came at Fairplex in the Pomona Invitational. He was third in the Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap last year, and is back for a return engagement on Monday after Hendricks wisely passed last week's Pacific Classic. Reba's Gold was a fast-finishing third in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap on Aug. 3 in his last start.

"He's just a nice, sound, hard-working horse," Hendricks said. "We've gone to Texas twice and Japan, so I've got a special bond with him. He's always right there."

Reba's Gold, a son of Slew o' Gold, is an enormous horse, who is prone to try and snack on the help at Hendricks's barn. "He weighed 1,350 pounds when we took him to Japan last year," Hendricks said. "He's a big, massive horse with a bit of presence to him. He's full of himself. He has a good appetite for grain, and flesh."

Rhianna is scheduled to run on Thursday on dirt in the $75,000 Piedra Foundation Handicap, or on Sunday on turf in the Grade 2, $200,000 Palomar Breeders' Cup Handicap, either of which would mark her first start since finishing third in the Grade 3, Hawthorne Handicap at Hollywood Park on April 25. She has already earned far more than the $40,000 for which she was claimed by owners Allegra and John Ernst last November, all while Hendricks has battled foot problems that have led to unorthodox training.

"She's been training barefoot," Hendricks said. "I may even race her barefoot, but I don't know if I'm brave enough to do that. She has sensitive feet. If you train without shoes, a lot of time you can naturally toughen up their feet. I learned this from Mandella. It takes a lot of maintenance. If she runs on the dirt, I may run her without shoes. But I probably will put glue-on shoes on her."

Don'tsellmeshort, a 2-year-old colt by Benchmark, won the Graduation Stakes on July 30, and will seek to add another Cal-bred stakes, the $100,000 I'm Smokin, on Sept. 8. Just as he passed the Pacific Classic with Reba's Gold, so too will Hendricks avoid the West's best 2-year-olds by going in the I'm Smokin rather than the closing-day Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 10.

"I'm staying away from the urge to run in the Futurity," Hendricks said. "He can run in the I'm Smokin, and then 13 days later run in the Barretts Juvenile at Pomona."

Don'tsellmeshort was sold to Hendricks and owner Cecil Peacock for $75,000 through Barretts just days after finishing second in his debut on May 7. Since then, Don'tsellmeshort has won twice in three starts, including a three-length victory in the Graduation.

Runaway Dancer, a two-time winner for Hendricks at the meet, is going to stick with long-distance grass races after twice winning at 1 3/8 miles this summer. Physically, he is the opposite of Reba's Gold, being rather sparely made. "He's been a pleasant surprise," Hendricks said. "We didn't realize until we tried that he could run all day long. Now, it's, jeez, how far can he go?"