It's the world's most overhyped horse race, and bringing their first runner to the Kentucky Derby has unhinged hundreds of trainers. Some second-guess themselves about workouts. Others push their horse too hard, or go to the other extreme and baby it. Some get put off by the carnival atmosphere and resent the disruptions in their routine.
For a first-timer who will saddle the favorite, multiply the pressure 100 times. The trainer and horse are never out of the spotlight, and after answering the same question dozens of times, even the most affable, patient person can snap. Away from the barn, the tension never eases. Sleep comes in fitful stretches or not at all, and chasing the dream becomes pure aggravation.
Dan Hendricks, all of a sudden, this is your life. The 47-year-old native of California has never been in the Derby before, and his colt Brother Derek is the favorite. So instead of being a minor figure on the Southern California circuit, now Hendricks belongs to everybody. A mob of reporters and dozens of television crews are drawn to his barn, and demands on his time are constant. Unfortunately for Hendricks, he's been through an infinitely more stressful experience.
Ever since he was 11, Hendricks had been an avid participant in the thrilling and dangerous sport of motocross, and on July 7, 2004, fate turned against him while he took a jump he'd made many times. A spinal-cord injury paralyzed him from the waist down, the ultimate horror for a fearless risk-taker. In that situation, no one is immune to despair.
"In the initial stages, you lie in a hospital bed, looking at the ceiling tiles, and it's a completely new ordeal," Hendricks said last week. "Sure, I thought about not coming back [to training]. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to. But in time, I was able to slowly get out. I think this is what all people in my position go through, so I don't think it's anything new.
"But once I got back, the horses, the racetrack, the racetrack family, it all brought me back, and here I am two years later, and right in the thick of things."
The comeback didn't take long. His wife, Samantha, and his assistant trainer, Francisco Alvarado, took over the stable during Hendricks' surgery and hospitalization, and seven weeks after the accident, he was in the winner's circle. On Aug. 24, 2004, at Del Mar, near where he grew up, Hendricks got the money with Littlebitofzip on his first day back at the track.
Ten days earlier, trainer Christopher Paasch organized a poker night that raised almost $50,000 to help Hendricks with his medical expenses. The injury confined Hendricks to a wheelchair, and now he zips around the stable area in a specially designed golf cart.
"It's not a lot of fun being in my position," he said. "But a lot of people have to deal with it, and I'm trying to deal with it. Luckily, I have a job that I was able to go back to, and it allowed me to keep busy."
The racetrack is in Hendricks' blood. His father, Lee, uncle Byron and cousin Jacquie Fulton were trainers. Hendricks' first job at the track was for trainer Willard Proctor, and he spent nine years aiding Hall of Famer Richard Mandella before going out on his own in 1987. He had his first stakes winner that year, and he's earned Grade I trophies, but before Brother Derek, Hendricks never had "the big horse" that can define a career.
Hendricks trained a full brother of Brother Derek, Don'tsellmeshort, who won two stakes and more than $400,000 as a 2-year-old in 2003 for owner Cecil Peacock. When Hendricks and the 79-year-old Canadian oilman saw Brother Derek at a 2-year-old sale in Pomona, Calif., Peacock "was completely impressed with his pedigree and conformation." Peacock, a native of Calgary, Alberta, paid $275,000 for the California-bred son of Benchmark and turned him over to Hendricks.
"[Peacock] loves the sport, and he rolls with the punches," Hendricks said. "He's just a great guy. He's very approachable, and he loves the game."
From the beginning, there was nothing not to like about Brother Derek. Two months after being bought, he won his debut May 14 in a 4?-furlong baby race at Hollywood Park. Since then, he's lost only twice -- in his next start in early September at Del Mar and in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Between those defeats he became the first Cal-bred to take the Norfolk Stakes since Free House in 1996. He's 4-for-4 since the Juvenile, running the table in the Hollywood Futurity, San Rafael, Santa Catalina and the Santa Anita Derby.
The knock on Brother Derek is that he's had his own way on the lead in short fields. How will he react to a 20-horse Derby loaded with other front-runners?
"With his tactical speed, he shouldn't encounter a lot of traffic as long as there isn't a suicidal pace or a bad break," Hendricks said. " ... His main weapon is speed, and stalking, and that's where he's going to be in the Derby. Even with the fast pace, we're going to be close. We're not going to be way back trying to teach him a new way of running."
In a recent online chat, Hendricks jokingly revealed the instructions he'll give to rider Alex Solis:
"If you don't tell anyone else, we're going to try and sit just behind the speed in the clear, take the lead at the three-sixteenths pole, and win by a length and a half."
Great plan, but nothing in American racing could be more easily said than done.