Wheelchair-bound Hendricks still walking tall

Jan 24, 2006 2:31 AM

Dan Hendricks has every right to be bitter, but if he is, he hides it well.

He still rules his barn with an iron yet caring hand, wins races with regularity, delights in zinging his peers with a biting sense of humor, has his priorities in order as always, spends a proper amount of time with his family: wife, Samantha, and their three children, Christopher, Matthew and Gregory, and even gets on a pony now and again to watch his horses train.

Except for the fact that he will never walk again, it’s been pretty much business as usual at the 48-year-old trainer’s barn ever since a motorcycle accident on July 7, 2004, paralyzed him from the waist down.

But Dan is a fighter who disdains pity. He wasted little time feeling sorry for himself after the tragic mishap and won the California Cup Classic with 20-1 shot Cozy Guy only three months after being paralyzed.

Hendricks gets around the race track in a state-of-the-art wheelchair, and if tickets were given for speeding in those contraptions, Dan would be a candidate for traffic school. Thanks to advanced technology, he also drives a standard but specially equipped motor vehicle, and with the aide of his assistants and a saddle rigged with support braces, is able to mount a pony.

Life will never be like it was, but Hendricks, a native of Los Angeles, isn’t letting that deter him. In a sense, he has more to look forward to these days than ever, at least at his ever-active stable.

The reason is a 3-year-old California-bred colt named Brother Derek, who prior to winning the Grade I Hollywood Futurity last Dec. 17, upset Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion Stevie Wonderboy in the San Rafael Stakes on Jan. 14 to catapult his beautiful bay butt squarely on the road to the Kentucky Derby on May 6.

Until the San Rafael, Brother Derek had been the Rodney Dangerfield of his class. Even after winning the Grade II Norfolk Stakes as a 2-year-old last year and finishing a creditable fourth behind Stevie Wonderboy in the Juvenile despite breaking from post 13 in a field of 14, the son of the chic new sire, Benchmark, was largely dismissed as a fluke.

Take it from me, this horse is no fluke. He will only improve. And he was never underestimated by Hendricks.

"He’s had our respect since before he ran," Hendricks told me.

Hendricks knows a good horse when he sees one. His father, Lee, and uncle, Byron--twins--also were trainers. His first job at the race track was with the late Willard Proctor, a crusty coot who mellowed imperceptibly with age and was a throwback, akin to Seabiscuit’s taciturn trainer, Silent Tom Smith.

Later, Hendricks spent nine years with Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella before going on his own in 1987. Three of Dan’s best thoroughbreds were the stakes-winning filly, Feverish, the over-achieving Reba’s Gold, owned by "Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek, and the crack sprinter, Gray Slewpy, former holder of the track record for 5 ½ furlongs at Santa Anita.

But they’re so much chopped liver compared to Brother Derek, a $275,000 purchase by Hendricks’ client of more than 10 years, Calgary oilman Cecil Peacock.

"I think he’s the best horse I’ve ever had," Hendricks said of Brother Derek. "Gray Slewpy used to be, and Feverish sure was one of my favorites (he had a vanity license plate with her name on it), but from the standpoint of sheer ability and national prominence, yeah, Brother Derek is the best."

Faced with the restricting personal hand Dan’s been dealt, the horse sure makes it more palatable to come to the barn every day. To no one’s surprise, Hendricks has had the unflagging support of family, friends and the racing community since his life-changing ordeal. It no doubt helped that Hendricks had a mind set and philosophical foundation similar to the late Bill Shoemaker, who was a quadriplegic for the last 12 years of his life following a one-vehicle accident in 1991, but in public never bitched and always put on a good face.

"It doesn’t get much better than that, watching Dan win a race like the San Rafael," said former mentor Mandella. "He’s having a heck of a run with that horse. I think it goes to show that there is good in this world. His owners stayed behind him and his help stayed with him. It’s one of those stories in life you don’t read about very often, when good things do happen.

"Dan is amazing. He’s a great credit to the human race."

THE HOMESTRETCH

Gary Stevens on the retirement of fellow Hall of Fame rider Jerry Bailey, who will join Stevens in the broadcast booth:

"He was probably the greatest tactical rider I ever rode with. He was always very, very well-prepared weeks before a major race. He said himself he’s loved the competitiveness of the sport. I’m glad to have him on my side of the fence now. He actually gave me a call Tuesday morning before he announced his retirement, which was really nice.

"The good thing is we’re going to be at a lot of the same venues together, with my work for TVG and NBC and his with ESPN and ABC, even though NBC won’t be covering some of his races," Stevens continued. "I told Jerry to make sure he brings his golf clubs along. We plan to have many an afternoon on the golf course and keep up the competitive spirit."