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Jerry Hollendorfer - interview with a racing legend

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By Steve Schuelein

Jerry Hollendorfer is the classic case of the big fish in the small pond. Small in stature but giant in achievements, “The Dorf” has become a training legend in Northern California. During the past 21 years, Hollendorfer has led every meet at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields. That staggering total reached 61 this year following his 33rd straight Bay Meadows title and 28th consecutive Golden Gate crown.


Since taking out his license in 1979, Hollendorfer has cranked out winners at such high frequency that he ranks fourth on the all-time list for career victories. Closing in on the 5,000-victory plateau with 4,890 at midyear, Hollendorfer trails only Dale Baird (9,379), Jack Van Berg (6,378) and King Leatherbury (6,202) in the career category. His career earnings have exceeded $90 million. But Hollendorfer, 61, is not a story of running up statistics with bottom-shelf claimers. When given the occasional horse of talent, Hollendorfer has shown his ability to shine at the highest level. He first came to national prominence with King Glorious, winner of the Hollywood Futurity in 1988 and Haskell Stakes in 1989, both Grade 1 stakes. In 1991, he won another pair of Grade 1’s, the Kentucky Oaks and Coaching Club American Oaks - with Lite Light. To prove the first Kentucky Oaks victory was no fluke, he won the prestigious race for a second time in 1996 with Pike Place Dancer.


Hollendorfer’s stable rolled along to $5-million years during the decade since and produced several more stakes winners. On the Kentucky Derby undercard this year, Hollendorfer struck again with another Grade 1 victory, Hystericalady in the Humana Distaff Handicap. Hollendorfer reflected on his career recently during an interview with Steve Schuelein.


What was it like growing up in Ohio, and how did you become interested in racing there?

      
I grew up outside Akron, where it was pretty rural. We had a few acres and a pony to ride. My father worked for Chrysler, my mother for the Baptist church. When I went to Revere High School in Richfield, I did a little wrestling at 112 pounds with modest success and worked at a market. I went to college at the University of Akron--now called Akron State--and graduated with a B.S. in business administration. I was always interested in going to the races in my younger years. I went to Ascot Park in Cuyahoga Falls and Thistledown and liked to go to the trotters at Northfield.


LeBron James grew up in Akron too. Has he done as much for basketball as you have done for racing?


I think LeBron’s got me beat a mile. Everyone from Akron is proud of LeBron.


What brought you to California and when?


After college, I visited a friend in San Francisco. I liked the climate right away. I went back, packed the car and drove out.


How did you get started in racing?


When I came out, I wasn’t working and wanted to see the backstretch. My degree was in marketing. That didn’t interest me enough, but the horses did. I was interested in finding out what was going on on the backstretch.


What trainers did you work for, and what did you learn from them?


I went to work as a hot walker for Dan Wilcher, who had a horse named Rigatoni King. I was working for him when he left for Southern California and recommended me to stay here with Jerry Dutton. Working for Dutton was a great experience. He made you work hard but you could learn, and he never asked you to do more than he would do. I worked my way up from hot walker to groom to foreman to assistant trainer and pony boy with him. Later I went to work for Jerry Fanning in Southern California and then back to Dutton in Northern California. Trainers don’t teach. You have to learn by observation. Dutton had a training pattern, and Fanning had a similar one. I do a lot of similar things. I kind of believe in keeping a horse on a schedule, something I learned from them. In addition, I always liked to see what other people do, especially the more successful trainers. I always pay attention and try to retain the good things they do. But it’s an ongoing learning process. I try to make adjustments every day to be a better trainer.


Early in your career, did you ever aspire to approach these heights?


In our barn, I just try to do what works well. You reflect back, and it’s just something that transpires. You accept more horses along the way, and the barn grows. Along with that, you have to be real lucky to get good people to work for you.


What do you remember about Novel Sprite?


She was a filly I claimed for $16,000 at Golden Gate Fields, and she ended up making over $400,000. She was named National Claimer of  the Year (in 1986) and gave me my first stakes win (in the San Jose Handicap). The first stakes winner always sticks with you. She was a very good horse. I credit her with giving me a big boost.


You’ve called King Glorious your best horse and winning the Hollywood Futurity your biggest thrill. Are those comments still accurate?


King Glorious was my first big horse, and the Hollywood Futurity was worth $1-million, a good race to win. (Chris) McCarron rode a great race, although I was a little worried about an inquiry because of an incident at the head of the lane. But he didn’t come down. I got a big kick out of it because Ted Aroney, owner of Halo Farms, has always been very supportive. Ted bought his mare out of a sale when she was in foal with King Glorious. I had him from the start. He caught everybody’s attention right away. He was a great-looking horse and very fast. He was a Cal- bred and only lost once. Aroney was offered a lot of money for him and sold him to the Japanese.


What do you remember about Lite Light and the Kentucky Oaks wins with her and Pike Place Dancer?


I began training Lite Light in the spring of her 3-year-old year after she was purchased privately by M.C. Hammer, the rap star. He was from Northern California, Oakland, and named his stable Oaktown Stable. (Track publicist) Sam Spear introduced me to him. Ted Aroney found out Lite Light was for sale and suggested I should try to buy her for him. After Hammer bought her, she won the Santa Anita Oaks with her old trainer, Henry Moreno. Then I put her on the stakes trail, and she won the Fantasy at Oaklawn Park and the Kentucky Oaks. We had a great rivalry with Meadow Star that summer. She got beat a nose in the Mother Goose but came back to win the Coaching Club American Oaks. It was quite amazing to work for a music star because of his large entourage, which included bodyguards. Everyone recognizes the star. I was able to stay in the background while Hammer did his thing. You never expect to repeat the performance of Lite Light in the Kentucky Oaks, and I was fortunate to win that race twice. I bought Pike Place Dancer at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $40,000 and was lucky to get her for that price. She was a half-sister to Petionville, a year younger than him before he became a stakes winner. I sold a half interest to George Todaro, with whom I have had a great successful partnership. She beat the boys in the California Derby before she won the Kentucky Oaks.


As good luck as you’ve had in the Kentucky Oaks, you seem to have been cursed with as much bad luck in the Kentucky Derby.


It’s the hardest race to win, and I’ve enjoyed trying. You can’t let it get you down. I’ve gotten to run three horses in it and been there with two others. Eye of the Tiger finished fifth (in 2003), and Cause to Believe and Bwana Bull didn’t run well (in 2006 and 2007). Event Of The Year had a hairline fracture in his knee after his last work before the Derby, a real good work (in 1998). Everyone was quite taken with his looks. He had a lot of media attention. He had a big chance. That one hurt. Globalize was entered (in 2000), and the next day, when the pony picked him up, he bit the pony, and the pony kicked him in the hock. He needed to be stitched (and was scratched). A lot of horses get close and don’t make it. That only adds to the mystique and aura of the Derby.


How do current graded stakes winners Hystericalady and Somethinaboutlaura rank among the better females you have trained?


They give a good account of themselves every time you put them in. They came to me quite differently. I bought Hystericalady at the Keeneland September yearling sale. She is by Distorted Humor, who I liked at the time. I bought Somethinaboutlaura privately (in February, 2006). She wins on turf and dirt, long and short, and is happy all the time.


Any other horses or races that have produced special memories?


There are so many. I enjoy the everyday contact with the horses. I enjoy winning, and I enjoy the work it takes to win.


You have dominated Northern California racing like no other. How important is it to keep the winning streak alive?


I don’t know how many more meetings I can stay on top. They’re getting closer. I won the last one by only eight races. It seems like we have to work harder and harder to stay on top. It’s getting more difficult to keep winning.


What are your thoughts on the current state of affairs in Northern California?


I’ve been here a long time and seen a lot of things. Bay Meadows going away is in no way a positive. We’re in a state of transition and flux, and I hope things work out. I hope the young guys coming up have as good a setting as I have had all these years. I’m pretty flexible. If my horses continue to fit, I’ll continue. If not, I’ll do something else. I could go to Southern California or another state. The fairs get in the way of my program during the summer. That’s why I race at Hollywood Park and Del Mar then.


Should racetracks embrace slot machines?


I think the state of California should have them because there are people there to gamble. It would help the house handle. There are a lot of slot machines in nearby states such as Nevada.


You’re fourth in career winnings nearing the 5,000 mark. What goals do you have left?


I don’t know. I would like to win 5,000. That’s an attainable goal. It’s hard to plan if you should cut back. As long as the people working with me want to keep doing it, I’d like to keep doing it. It takes a lot of dedication, but a lot of trainers keep going on. I can’t imagine a guy like Dale Baird winning 9,000 races. He must be the iron man of the world. I’m comfortable trying to compete. If I ever get uncomfortable, I will have to rethink it.


Tell us about your stable and key personnel.


I stable mostly in Northern California at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields and ship to the fairs during the summer. I have about 100 to 110 horses in Northern California plus 25 to 30 in Southern California. I have been and in-and-outer there the last few years but would like to keep a division there. I spend a lot of time at Del Mar. My wife Janet works with me all the time and is a great catalyst to make things work in my barn. She is my right hand. Janet was on the racetrack as a teenager in Southern California and I met her while she was working for Mel Stute. Andy Wilson handles my off-track horses, and Cristy Wiebe oversees the Southern California division.


What are your thoughts on the workers’ compensation insurance situation?


It has been vastly improved through the efforts of various different groups. Great progress has been made. A lot of people on the backside - both trainers and workers - are a lot happier. The AIG group has been looking after things in a more intensified manner.


Who have been and are your most important owners?


Everybody’s important to me. I have been successful building small and large partnerships. My main partner, George Todaro, has stuck with me for more than 20 years. (The Hollendorfer-Todaro partnership led California owners in wins last year). Halo Farm (Aroney) has been with me that long. Peter Abruzzo was instrumental in bringing me to Chicago two years in a row.

 
What is the origin of your nickname “The Dorf?”


Ivan Puhich, a jockey agent, started calling me that in Northern California, probably one day when he got mad at me.
What is your training philosophy?


I like to keep horses as fit and happy as I can.

Are the current medication rules fair?


My only opinion is if you want to measure anybody’s business in nanograms and picograms, it makes it very difficult. The testing procedures are correct but they measure in such small amounts, I don’t know how fair that is for somebody trying to do the right thing. But they have to have some rules.


What do you think about the new synthetic surfaces being installed?


I’m a very conservative person. To my way of thinking, I wouldn’t automatically change all the tracks. It may be the best thing, but something may come up. We’ll know in time. But they shouldn’t change them all over until they’ve done more testing.


Do you have any hobbies?

I’m just a horse trainer. That’s all I do.