dreams can change people. They can make wealthy owners squander millions on
frail yearlings with good breeding, and they can make trainers believe that a
slow horse will suddenly run fast or that a fast horse will run far. Derby
dreams can go beyond hope. This year they are giving a 47-year-old man one more
reason to keep on living.
On a July afternoon in 2004, trainer Dan Hendricks was in a motocross crash
that left him paralyzed below the waist. Once vibrant, he lay in a San Diego
hospital bed, numb and disconsolate. "He was talking about the most
desperate things you can imagine," says fellow trainer Dick Mandella, who
visited him the day after the accident, "like wishing the wreck hadn't
stopped hurting him halfway."
Twenty-one hard months have passed for Hendricks. He runs his stable of 23
thoroughbreds from a six-wheel, motorized all-terrain chair. "It's still
hard to deal with," he says of his condition. He has been helped by his
tireless staff, by the love of his three sons and by a powerful bay 3-year-old
colt named Brother Derek, who might wear a blanket of roses on the first
Saturday in May.
Last Saturday at
Santa Anita Park, Brother Derek toyed with four opponents and won the Santa
Anita Derby by 3 1/4 lengths, solidifying his status as the Kentucky Derby
favorite. After the race Hendricks reached up from his wheelchair in the
winner's circle and lovingly smacked the white splotch in the middle of Brother
Derek's brown face. "He's been an inspiration to me," says the trainer.
"He's been a big help in getting me out to work every day."
motocross bikes as a teenager, quit at age 18 and then started again 24 years
later because it was something he could do with his boys: Chris, 15, Matt, 13,
and Greg, 10. He even began racing again, in veterans' events.
On the afternoon
of his accident, at a motocross track an hour from home, Hendricks went off a
jump, got sideways in the air and landed badly; his head slammed into the dirt.
"I knew it was a bad sign that I didn't feel any pain in my legs," he
says. "They told me in the hospital that I had a complete fracture of my T3
vertebra, which means no chance for recovery."
underwent surgery to stabilize his spine and returned to work in six weeks.
Assistant trainer Francisco Alvarado had helped keep the stable running, but
the barn needed Hendricks's relentless, chops-busting spirit. "We missed
his jokes," says Alvarado.
something beyond the old routine, and he found it on a March morning in 2005,
eight months after the accident. At the Barrett's auction of 2-year-old horses
in Pomona, Calif., Hendricks and his longtime client Cecil Peacock, an oilman
from Calgary, wanted Brother Derek, and Peacock paid $275,000 for the
sense is in his genes. His father, Lee, and Lee's twin brother, Byron, were
renowned horsemen. In the 1950s they had a barnstorming rodeo act that featured
expertly trained dogs, mules and horses. At the climax of the act each twin
stood on the backs of a team of horses--Roman riding--and then jumped over a
car from opposite directions. Lee, 82, says he and his brother, who died in
1992, were once paid $10,000 for a show at Madison Square Garden and appeared
on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Hendricks brothers called their act The Flying
Twins. Later they helped break racehorses of bad habits and became known as The
before the Santa Anita Derby, Dan popped a tape into a VCR in his tack room and
narrated as his dad and uncle performed their magic on an old TV show.
"Incredible," he said. "My father is the best horseman I've ever
known." At the end of his career Lee worked briefly as a thoroughbred
trainer, and he introduced Dan to the racetrack. "He was always such a good
kid," Lee says of Dan. "And now, what a great job he's doing with this
Brother Derek went
into the Santa Anita Derby with three consecutive victories and was sent off at
1-2 odds against Derby hopefuls A.P. Warrior and Point Determined and two other
colts. The quartet had no chance against Hendricks's horse. Under jockey Alex
Solis--who suffered a broken back in a spill, with no spinal damage, 16 days
after Hendricks's injury and missed seven months of riding--Brother Derek
bounded out of the starting gate and into the lead. When pressed briefly on the
far turn by A.P. Warrior, Solis let the reins out, and Derek rolled away
effortlessly. He ran his final three eighths of a mile in a brisk 36.79 seconds
and his last furlong in 12.61 under a hand ride, suggesting little fatigue and
no foreseeable problem with the Kentucky Derby's 1 1/4 miles.
There will be
questions, of course. Brother Derek seems to like running on the lead, which
could be problematic in what figures to be a 20-horse Derby field. "Even
I'm not sure he has the right style for the Derby," says Hendricks.
"But I know he's the best horse I've ever trained."