(Originally published in the April 9, 2011 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
By Evan Hammonds
In the old days, enshrinement into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame was pretty cut-and-dried. The one that received the top number of votes in each category got to step to the other side of the velvet rope.
Over the past several years the rules have been tweaked…and tweaked some more. Each change along the way drew mailbags full of comments—mainly negative—to the Hall of Fame and the electoral system.
Was there a need to make changes to the process? Probably. Did the powers that be get it right? To add additional commentary here would be “piling on,” so we’ll move ahead.
Despite the changes there have been many obvious constants: To be eligible, trainers must have been active for 25 years, jockeys must have been active for 20 years, equine stars must have been retired for five years…and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer didn’t appear on the ballot until this year.
Having taken out his trainer’s license in 1979, Hollendorfer has been eligible for consideration since 2004 based on the rules of the game. It says here this should be a one-and-done deal for the horseman to enter the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
The man has had a stranglehold on racing in Northern California since the mid-1980s and famously strung together 37 consecutive training titles in the Bay Area from 1986 to 2008. That’s 22 straight years.
“Statistically he’s a slam dunk,” said trainer John Sadler, who first met Hollendorfer in 1979. “He believes you have to work at this every single day. When I say that, if it’s a Tuesday afternoon, he’s looking at the horses to claim on Wednesday.”
Not to take anything away from Gary Jones and Robert Wheeler, the other two trainers on the ballot. Both were West Coast legends in their day and sent out their fair share of champions and major winners. Hollendorfer, however, has easily eclipsed both.
“He’s intense, and he expects that same intensity from everybody,” said Ray Harris, agent for Russell Baze, racing’s all-time leading rider with 11,000-plus victories.
Baze entered the Hall of Fame in 1999. Of Hollendorfer’s 5,900 (and counting) wins, Baze has been aboard for 2,487 of them after notching his first winner for Hollendorfer in 1981. Jones and Wheeler saddled 2,801 winners combined.
“He’s mellowed with age,” Baze said. “He used to get upset when he lost. There have been some rumors about how crazy he’d get, but he’s just a guy who wants to win.”
Sadler vehemently disagrees that Hollendorfer has mellowed.
“He’s relentless,” he said. Sadler should know—he shares a barn with Hollendorfer at Del Mar.
“We’re both out there with the first set, but the difference is that he’s also on the phone to Pleasanton or Golden Gate at the same time.”
Over the last decade Hollendorfer has raised his profile from a NoCal icon to national player. The number of horses in his barn in Southern California hovers around 40, and he consistently knocks down major stakes races. He won the Big ’Cap in 2008 with Heatseeker.
Each spring he comes to Churchill Downs for Derby week and never seems to fail to land a big race or two. His biggest have come in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), winning it three times: Lite Light (1991), Pike Place Dancer (1996), and Blind Luck (2010). His work with Blind Luck last year alone deserves him a spot in the Hall of Fame, as he shipped the young filly out of California six times for major races, culminating with her receiving an Eclipse Award as top 3-year-old filly.
The Derby? He’s been punched in the stomach twice under the Twin Spires with perhaps his two best shots. The unbeaten Event of the Year injured a knee in his final Derby work in 1998 and Turfway Spiral Stakes (gr. II) winner Globalize was kicked by a stable pony the Thursday before the 2000 Derby.
“That’s just horse racing,” Baze said of Hollendorfer’s Derby karma. “It’s just a matter of time before he’ll get the right horse.”
If Hollendorfer hasn’t found the right horse yet, he’s found his soulmate in his wife, Janet, who shares his affinity for hard work.
“It’s non-stop work around the barn,” Baze said. “It would take four guys to replace her. It makes me tired sometimes watching them in the mornings.”
According to the Hall of Fame’s rules for 2011, four worthy finalists—either equine or human—will enter the Hall of Fame this August in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Here’s hoping Jerry Hollendorfer will get his chance to step up to the podium.