02/04/2011 4:36PM

Triumph and tragedy for trainer Kohnhorst

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Trainer Richard Kohnhorst poses with his wife Linda and daughter Kristine.

OLDSMAR, Fla. – It might have been the proudest moment of his career. There was Richard Kohnhorst, one-time struggling trainer, beaming in the Indiana Downs winner’s circle when being honored for winning the first training title of his career.

His wife, Linda, was there on that unforgettable Wednesday night last summer, just like she always was when Richard needed her. So, too, was their only child, their daughter Kristine, as well as a handful of other friends and supporters.

“I’d never had a meet like that in my life, not even close,” Kohnhorst, 58, recalled on a cold recent morning on the backstretch of Tampa Bay Downs, where he makes his winter base. “We were winning every photo, getting kissed up on disqualifications, getting all our horses in good spots, horses winning three in a row, just everything clicking.”

Indeed, the 22-for-60 meet was, by miles, the best that Kohnhorst has ever had in a 25-year career in which he has won fewer than 300 races.

Sadly, joy soon turned to horror. A little more than 72 hours later, Linda was dead, the victim of massive heart failure on the morning of July 18, after taking a shower when alone in the couple’s home on their six-acre LaGrange, Ky., farm.

More than six months later, Richard is still coming to terms with his grief.

“I’m getting better, I guess,” he said. “Right after the burial, I was on my way back to work in Indiana. That’s one good thing this business will do to you, keep you busy and keep your mind off things. It’s almost like a luxury. When I’d be done working, I’d just sit on the bed and cry. That’s all I did for 2 1/2 months.”

Linda Kohnhorst, who would have turned 55 on Jan. 30, had a great affinity for horses and was an integral member of the work force at Longfield Farm, the Louisville-area farm where she worked for more than 27 years.

“Linda was like family here,” said Allan Lavin, whose family has owned and operated Longfield for more than 40 years.

Longfield has a proud history in the Thoroughbred industry. Back-to-back Preakness winners, Pine Bluff (1992) and Prairie Bayou (1993), were born and raised at the farm as were more recent major stakes winners such as Eddington, Sand Springs, and Just Jenda.

“Linda was a huge part of our operation,” Lavin said. “She could do just about anything on a horse farm that needed to be done. She started out in the stables and gradually moved into the office, keeping all the horse records and doing all the books. She was absolutely great at whatever she did.”

Linda and Kristine, 26, cared for horses at the family farm, too, and often went for long horseback rides together. Linda was very active in the local 4-H club.

“Her life pretty much revolved around her family and her horses,” Kohnhorst said.

In the days before her death, Linda had been particularly happy, Lavin said.

“With Richard having such a great run, she had a lot of spring in her step,” he said. “They’d been through a lot, you know.”

“For years, we were just trying to make the mortgage,” Kohnhorst said. “We were at our wit’s end – a lot. When things looked like they were finally going to level off, this happens. I felt cheated for a long time. I’d ask why she had to die, why she went so young.”

“It was very, very hard to deal with,” said Mike Stidham, a fellow trainer and one of Kohnhorst’s closest friends. “You’re around someone so full of life and energy one day, and the next day they’re gone. Linda was always behind Richard 100 percent. I used to joke around with her and tell her she deserved a medal for putting up with him. Richard had gone through a real dry spell, and then he jumps up and wins a training title – only to have this happen to him? It’s unimaginable, horrible.”

Kohnhorst and his 30-horse stable will leave Tampa around April 10 to return to Indiana Downs in the Indianapolis suburbs. He had trained for years in Kentucky, but business had gotten so bad that several years ago he and his main clients, Mike Hunt and Dale Smith, decided to focus on the slots-fueled breeding and racing programs in Indiana, where the competition was a bit easier. Working some three hours away in Indiana kept Richard apart from his wife for much of the last few years of her life, but finally, some of their problems were being resolved.

These days, Kohnhorst stays busy at Tampa, training in the mornings, going to the races in the afternoons, and spending quiet evenings at dinner or in the place he rents near the track. He has a new lady friend with whom he spends some time. He is trying his best to move on.

“Some days it gets pretty rough,” he said. “When Linda’s birthday came around the other day, it was the longest day I’ve had since she died.”

Kohnhorst is trying to decide what to do with the farm, now that Linda isn’t there to care for it and Kristine has gotten older. When he returns home, as he did for the Christmas holidays, the memories are still fresh and unbearably bittersweet.

“Kristine’s been my rock in a lot of ways,” he said. “These horses, they’ve been good to me, too. I feel blessed that they keep me moving. It’s still hard, though. It’d be that I’d get back to the room after working and think, ‘Oh no, here I am alone again.’ But I’m trying to deal with it. It’s just that when you’re married to someone for 28 years, there’s no way to replace them.”