It’s always show time
for the Sarge, and it’s no act

Jul 6, 2004 4:10 AM

Nick Hines is racing’s poster boy for exuberance.

The Refrigerator Perry-sized trainer resembles a human pinball when he bounds from the box seat area to the winners’ circle after one of his horses triumphs, nimbly swooping and twirling down the stairs like an oversized Fred Astaire, arms akimbo, blowing kisses at random and stopping en route to render a grateful and proper military salute to the powers that be.

With apologies to George Thorogood, Nick Hines is p-p-p-patriotic to the bone. He doesn’t bleed red; he bleeds red, white and blue. There is no cover, no minimum for the Nick Hines Show. The entertainment is free.

To some, his antics may be wearing thin, but it’s no act. Affectionately called "The Sarge" by friends and associates, Hines wears his emotions on his substantial sleeve. Stoic, he is not. Given time, Hines’ extreme routine could challenge "Cats" as the world’s longest-running show.

"I’ll be quite frank; it’s not something I choreograph," the 34-year-old Hines explained about his audaciousness. "I am from Las Vegas (he was born on Fathers’ Day, June 21, 1970) and it is the entertainment capital of the world, but when I grew up, my mother impressed on me the importance of having a passion for music, not horses. I paid for most of my schooling through scholarships I earned playing trumpet, thanks to my mother. I was a finalist for the McDonald’s All-American Band around 1986 and was the top brass in Nevada for two years in my junior and senior years at Clark High School in Las Vegas.

"I think that explains why I’m a very passionate person and there are certain ways I express that. Some people show it by action, some by word. I kind of do it both ways because each day I come to work it’s a dream come true. It’s like having a job at Disneyland. You get to work all the rides. It’s the same thing with horses. I’ve never hit the lottery but I imagine the feeling would be pretty close to how it is when you win a race."

And at Hollywood Park this meet, Hines is winning races and displaying his shtick in unprecedented fashion. Through July 4, he had eight victories, a personal high at the Inglewood track. His career mark for one year is 24. Most of Nick’s nimble trips to the winner’s circle are captured by television cameras, which has given him his 15 minutes of fame. The reviews are not always favorable. The Surgeon General should consider posting health warnings for careless souls who are in the trainer’s path as he tornadoes toward the winners’ circle: "Watching Nick Hines Can Be Dangerous to Your Health." You do not want to be in his way.

"I get e-mails and 80 percent encourage me to show my enthusiasm," said Hines, who at 6-5 and flirting with 300 pounds, fills the monitor. "But there are those who are critical and say my conduct prevents me from being considered a serious trainer and getting better horses."

But don’t expect an about-face.

"My father, Mike, was a passionate man and he came up through the ranks in Las Vegas where he built a ranch in 1954," Hines said. "I believe I got the passion from my father, who was killed in a horse-riding accident in 1985. Up until that point, I wasn’t into the horsemanship aspect of racing. I grew up on a ranch and around horses but I wasn’t really hands-on. I was more into reading the "Racing Form," doing race calls on a cassette tape and learning about pedigrees. I was more fascinated by the sport than anything else.

"But after he died, it was like his spirit left him and went into me, because my fear of horses was gone. It was that summer that I was designated to come to California and work for Henry Moreno, who had trained a couple of Cal-breds for my father."

Nick began his training career in 1994 with Bob Hess Jr. Eventually, he flew solo, but not before coming in for a crash landing.

"In 1997 I only had three horses, was down on my luck and things weren’t going right," Hines said. "(Trainer) Craig Dollase and I were room mates and I and went to work for him. Things just hadn’t materialized as well as I had hoped. I had been training for Red Ritchie and he passed away during that time."

Hines has made giant strides in 10 years, although the road has not been without potholes.

At the risk of evolving into a caricature of himself, in a sense Nick Hines has become racing’s Ralph Kramden, playing the part of a braggadocios blowhard, with a "bang-zoom" here and a "one of these days, pow! Right in the kisser" there. But for all the gesticulating, Nick Hines is really a sentimentalist at heart. In his final scene, the Playbill will reveal that he tenderly embraced racing and cooed to it with great affection, "Baby, you’re the greatest."

The homestretch

Hines says success at the Del Mar meet that runs from July 21 through Sept. 8 hinges on having fit horses, fresh horses and horses for the course. "I don’t have a lot of maidens that I’ll be starting there, which in a way is good because there won’t be a lot of adjustments for the race track," Hines said.

"I’ve got a lot of older horses that I’ve claimed. I’ll ship some there and run some from Hollywood. The ones that can handle the track I’ll keep there but I’ll take more fillies because of the atmosphere at Del Mar where you can keep them in outside pens, which you can’t do at Hollywood and Santa Anita. Because of the Environmental Protection Act, there are no outside pens at those two tracks. Horses with allergies, along with fillies that tend to be a little nervous, are better suited for outside pens at Del Mar. That’s why a lot of horses, especially fillies, improve greatly at that track."

...After failing to provide hair samples for drug testing, Patrick (Yul Brynner) Valenzuela was suspended yet again Friday by Hollywood Park stewards after returning to ride for one day following a 30-day suspension, according to a release from the California Horse Racing Board which went on to state, "The 41-year-old jockey has completely shaven his head, chest, armpits and pubic hair, which are the only areas of his body that could provide a sufficient quantity of hair follicles for testing."

While Valenzuela did provide a urine sample, which was negative for drugs, the testing of hair follicles is more comprehensive. Valenzuela already was balding and has worn what was left of the hair on his head very short for several years, but shaving his public hair? He must have known the examination was coming, unless he was planning to pose for "Sports Illustrated’s" swimsuit issue.