Hendricks's Spirit Remains Unbroken

Dan Hendricks, center, watches as Brother Derek gets cleaned off Monday. Hendricks crushed a vertebra in a 2004 motorcycle accident.
Dan Hendricks, center, watches as Brother Derek gets cleaned off Monday. Hendricks crushed a vertebra in a 2004 motorcycle accident. (AP)
By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 2, 2006

LOUISVILLE, May 1 -- Dan Hendricks came by his daredevil ways through his father, Lee, and uncle, Lee's twin brother Byron, both horse trainers in Southern California. The Daily Racing Form recently ran an old picture of Lee standing astride the backs of two horses, Roman style, jumping over an automobile.

"They had an act that was a cross between a rodeo and a circus," Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella said. "They put their show on in Madison Square Garden."

Since he was a boy growing up in Los Angeles, Hendricks had ridden motorcycles on motocross tracks with his older brother John, but on July 7, 2004, he missed a routine jump, fell and crushed a vertebra. Now, paralyzed from the waist down, he is in a wheelchair, and as trainer of Brother Derek, consensus favorite to win the Kentucky Derby this Saturday, people have been asking him about what happened and how he manages every single day.

"I raced as a kid and all my life and never had a broken bone," Hendricks said Monday, outside Barn 42 at Churchill Downs. "You feel like you're not susceptible to injury. I didn't feel it was life-threatening, but life-screwing-up. I knew things were going to be different."

Around the racetrack, starting with an old-time legend named Willard Proctor, then working nine years for Mandella before striking out on his own in 1987, Hendricks, 47, developed a reputation for being irrepressible.

"Here is a guy who was so animated, who you couldn't get to sit down," Mandella said. "I train my horses in the morning and then go take a nap, and he would go out and jump his motorcycle.

"I got a call, and I found out where he was that night [in Riverside Hospital], and I drove in and saw him and it just did not seem real. It was a shock."

On Monday morning, Hendricks arrived at Churchill Downs to supervise Brother Derek's final serious workout before the Kentucky Derby. His wheelchair is very fast, and Hendricks sprinted away from gathering crowds on the dirt paths between barns on the backstretch.

Asked how he combines training with paralysis, he said, "The chair does it."

But it is not the chair. Once a hands-on trainer, Hendricks relies on his knowledge of horses, his instincts, his staff and the support of his owners. His management of Brother Derek, who has won four straight stakes races culminating with a 3 1/4 -length victory in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby, has shown he can do the work sitting down.

He surprised those around him by returning to work less than two months after the accident. At first, he said, he needed to figure out how to live his old life a new way.

"Getting the logistics down: How do I get to the barn? How do I get to the track?" said Hendricks, who now occasionally gets on a pony in the morning. "It's like getting a new car and learning where all the knobs are. I thought it was way too slow, but it worked out fine."

When Hendricks returned to his barn at Santa Anita Park, he put people at ease by seeming to be the same as he had always been.

"He was devastated at first," Mandella said. "He put a lot of blame on himself. But he's connected to a lot of great people. His barn people stayed with him and gave him their all. And the owners, who aren't going to get a lot of credit for this, stayed with him."

"In the initial stages, you know, you lie in a hospital bed looking at the ceiling tiles, and it's a completely new ordeal," Hendricks said. "I mean, I thought about not coming back. I wasn't sure what I was going to be able to do. But in time, I was able to slowly, you know, get out. I think this is what all people in my position go through, so I don't think it's anything new."

George Haines, the general manager of Santa Anita Park, where Hendricks is based, said the track didn't much go out of its way to accommodate him.

"We built a wheelchair access ramp that goes from the parking lot to the barn area where he was stabled," Haines said. "That's the only thing we did for him. He really doesn't ask for much. His attitude is business as usual."

Before long, Haines said, Hendricks was up to mischief, plowing his wheelchair into people who happened to be holding cups of coffee.

"He likes to run over your feet with the tires and spin them as he goes over them," Mandella said.

While Hendricks was hospitalized after the crash, his regular jockey, Alex Solis, went down in an accident during a race, suffered serious injury and underwent surgery in which two titanium rods and a screw were placed in his back. His hospital was just down the road from Hendricks's.

On Saturday, Solis will ride the favorite for Hendricks in the Kentucky Derby.

"Dan and I have come a long way," Solis said. "I rode a lot of horses for Mandella, and I've ridden a lot for him and he's still the same guy after the accident, and now we've got Brother Derek."

Mandella, who has started six horses in the Derby in his career, will be pulling for his protege in his first.

"Danny's training out of that chair, and I think he surprised himself at how good he is at it," Mandella said. "He had all the ammunition in his arsenal to train horses: experience, talent and he's a good guy to be around. Now he's finding out his brain is not too bad, either."

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