Kentucky Derbydreams can change people. They can make wealthy owners squander millions onfrail yearlings with good breeding, and they can make trainers believe that aslow horse will suddenly run fast or that a fast horse will run far. Derbydreams can go beyond hope. This year they are giving a 47-year-old man one morereason to keep on living.
On a July afternoon in 2004, trainer Dan Hendricks was in a motocross crashthat left him paralyzed below the waist. Once vibrant, he lay in a San Diegohospital bed, numb and disconsolate. "He was talking about the mostdesperate things you can imagine," says fellow trainer Dick Mandella, whovisited him the day after the accident, "like wishing the wreck hadn'tstopped hurting him halfway."
Twenty-one hard months have passed for Hendricks. He runs his stable of 23thoroughbreds from a six-wheel, motorized all-terrain chair. "It's stillhard to deal with," he says of his condition. He has been helped by histireless staff, by the love of his three sons and by a powerful bay 3-year-oldcolt named Brother Derek, who might wear a blanket of roses on the firstSaturday in May.
Last Saturday atSanta Anita Park, Brother Derek toyed with four opponents and won the SantaAnita Derby by 3 1/4 lengths, solidifying his status as the Kentucky Derbyfavorite. After the race Hendricks reached up from his wheelchair in thewinner's circle and lovingly smacked the white splotch in the middle of BrotherDerek'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."
Hendricks racedmotocross bikes as a teenager, quit at age 18 and then started again 24 yearslater 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 afternoonof his accident, at a motocross track an hour from home, Hendricks went off ajump, 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," hesays. "They told me in the hospital that I had a complete fracture of my T3vertebra, which means no chance for recovery."
Hendricksunderwent surgery to stabilize his spine and returned to work in six weeks.Assistant trainer Francisco Alvarado had helped keep the stable running, butthe barn needed Hendricks's relentless, chops-busting spirit. "We missedhis jokes," says Alvarado.
Hendricks soughtsomething 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 horsesin Pomona, Calif., Hendricks and his longtime client Cecil Peacock, an oilmanfrom Calgary, wanted Brother Derek, and Peacock paid $275,000 for theCalifornia-bred juvenile.
Hendricks's horsesense is in his genes. His father, Lee, and Lee's twin brother, Byron, wererenowned horsemen. In the 1950s they had a barnstorming rodeo act that featuredexpertly trained dogs, mules and horses. At the climax of the act each twinstood on the backs of a team of horses--Roman riding--and then jumped over acar from opposite directions. Lee, 82, says he and his brother, who died in1992, were once paid $10,000 for a show at Madison Square Garden and appearedon The Ed Sullivan Show. The Hendricks brothers called their act The FlyingTwins. Later they helped break racehorses of bad habits and became known as TheHorse Psychiatrists.
Two morningsbefore the Santa Anita Derby, Dan popped a tape into a VCR in his tack room andnarrated as his dad and uncle performed their magic on an old TV show."Incredible," he said. "My father is the best horseman I've everknown." At the end of his career Lee worked briefly as a thoroughbredtrainer, and he introduced Dan to the racetrack. "He was always such a goodkid," Lee says of Dan. "And now, what a great job he's doing with thishorse."
Brother Derek wentinto the Santa Anita Derby with three consecutive victories and was sent off at1-2 odds against Derby hopefuls A.P. Warrior and Point Determined and two othercolts. The quartet had no chance against Hendricks's horse. Under jockey AlexSolis--who suffered a broken back in a spill, with no spinal damage, 16 daysafter Hendricks's injury and missed seven months of riding--Brother Derekbounded out of the starting gate and into the lead. When pressed briefly on thefar turn by A.P. Warrior, Solis let the reins out, and Derek rolled awayeffortlessly. He ran his final three eighths of a mile in a brisk 36.79 secondsand his last furlong in 12.61 under a hand ride, suggesting little fatigue andno foreseeable problem with the Kentucky Derby's 1 1/4 miles.
There will bequestions, of course. Brother Derek seems to like running on the lead, whichcould be problematic in what figures to be a 20-horse Derby field. "EvenI'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."
As Solis, 42, athree-time runner-up in the Kentucky Derby, talked about Brother Derekfollowing Saturday's race, tears welled in his eyes. "This horse is soamazing," he said, "sometimes you get emotional." Peacock,meanwhile, who turned 79 on Sunday, is having his first Derby dream. "Iused to joke about running in the Kentucky Derby," he says. Then there isHendricks, who now works relentlessly on six wheels instead of two legs,remaking his life while tethered to a gifted colt. One morning at Santa Anitahe fed Brother Derek carrots and then whisked his chair up a small ramp intohis office.
"The onlyscary part," he said, flashing a crooked smile, "is that eventuallythis ride is going to end." Not before May 6, it won't. And maybe notafter.
For more horse racing news and analysis from Tim Layden, plus his Five and Outcolumn, go to SI.com/more.