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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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By DAWN REISS
Published May 5, 2006
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Trainer Dan Hendricks peers up from his wheelchair, his eyes drooping from happy exhaustion. A horseshoe-shaped crowd has engulfed him. His blue-tinged lips are dry and cracked from talking but he continues. Every so often his hands reach under the jeans that drape his thin frame and lift his left leg, swaying it in tree-branch-like fashion.
"I'm tired," Hendricks said. "But it's my own fault I'm worn out. I've gotten home late every night, but that's part of it. Going out and having fun."
It's been nearly two years since Hendricks was paralyzed in a dirt-biking accident at Starwest Motocross Park, 70 miles southwest of Los Angeles. An eight-hour operation left with a metal plate in his back and a cage around damaged vertebra to stabilize his spine. Routine things, getting in and out of a car, that he used to take for granted have helped put everything in perspective. This is Hendricks' first trip back to the Kentucky Derby since 1984, when he was an assistant trainer to Richard Mandella with Bedouin, who finished 15th.
Like six of his peers, Hendricks, 47, is making his Derby debut as a trainer, with Brother Derek. The past three Derbys have been won by first-time trainers: Barclay Tagg (Funny Cide), John Servis (Smarty Jones) and last year John Shirreffs with Giacomo.
It's a 20-horse field that is strong as any. Some say one of the best, an all-star cast filled with speed. Brother Derek has won the four races since December, going 6-for-8 in the past two years. Barbaro, trained by Michael Matz, and Tagg's Showing Up are undefeated. Lawyer Ron has won seven of his 14 races, including the Arkansas Derby April 15, and Sharp Humor has won the last four of his seven races. The field also includes a pair of April 8 winners, Bob and John by 11/2 lengths in the Wood Memorial and Sweetnorthernsaint by 91/4 lengths in Illinois Derby, and Sinister Minister, who won the April 15 Blue Grass Stakes by 123/4 lengths.
"It's the toughest Derby I've ever seen," Tagg, 68, said. "I've been watching the Derby since 1953 on TV and I've never seen a Derby like this."
Sinister Minister, Keyed Entry and Sharp Humor are the likely pacesetters. Both Hendricks and Matz said they plan to stay close, but not in front, stalking expected front-runners Brother Derek and Friday's 5-1 favorite, Barbaro, to hopefully capitalize on experienced jockeys who can move through traffic with tactical speed.
"People ask me if Brother Derek can stalk," said Alex Solis, the most experienced of the jockeys who is competing in his 15th Derby. "I think he can. He has such a high cruising speed that I think he can race behind other horses. But you're not sure until the race starts."
Solis, whose best finish came in 2000, when Aptitude finished second to Fusaichi Pegasus, knows the importance of combining quick thinking with experience.
"Strategy, it's going to be interesting, that's for sure," said Solis, who has a pair of 5-inch titanium rods and eight screws in his back from a riding accident 16 days after Hendricks was injured on July 7, 2004. "Hopefully we'll get a good break and then we'll see what we can do."
But like last year, the possibility remains that a closer such as Cause to Believe, Jazil, Storm Treasure or Steppenwolfer could contend if speed burns up the front-runners. Giacomo, 50-1, broke from the 18th post last year and as the split times started to rise, continued to plod along to victory.
"You could see a scenario where everybody takes a hold and gets a real traffic jam going," said Shirreffs, A.P. Warrior's trainer. "But I don't think that'll be the case. I think there are several horses in here that are going to break. But anything is possible."
Having that possibility is what keeps any Derby contender's spirit alive, especially Hendricks. The father of three returned to Del Mar less than two months after his accident and watched 2-year-old filly Littlebitofzip end his barn's an 0-for-18 slump. Hendricks wondered then if he would be able to come back and manage his stables at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.
"It took six months until we started winning small races," said Hendricks, who helped design a saddle from which he occasionally observes his assistants, "and I realized it's just a matter of learning how to do it all over again."
Despite his path of determination, Hendricks still battles bouts of depression.
"I'm not totally out of it," Hendricks said. "I'm not going to lie to you. It's still there, but Saturday could be a turning point."