Standing in the wings - Assistant Trainers

By ED GOLDEN    The term “second banana” originated in the burlesque era, which enjoyed its heyday from the 1840s to the 1940s.     There was an extremely popular comedy skit where the main comic was given a banana after delivering the punch line to a particularly funny joke. The skit and joke were so widely known that the term “top banana” was coined to refer to anyone in the top position of an organization.    The term “second banana,” referring to someone at a pejorative plateau, had a similar origin from the same skit.    There would have been no Martin without Lewis, no Abbott without Costello, and no Laurel without Hardy.    Racing has its own version of second bananas, only they’re not in it for the yuks. They’re called assistants, and it’s a serious business.     Most of the laughs come in the winner’s circle, and if not outright guffaws, there at least have been miles of smiles for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and assistant Dan Ward, who spent 22 years with the late Bobby Frankel before joining Hollendorfer in 2007.    While clandestinely harboring caring emotions in their souls, on the surface, Frankel did not suffer fools well, nor does Hollendorfer. A cynic has said Ward should have been eligible for combat pay during those tours.    But he endures, currently with one of the largest and most successful barns in the nation, with 50 head at Santa Anita alone. Hollendorfer hasn’t won more than 7,400 races being lucky. It is a labor of love through dedication and scrutinization to the nth degree, leaving little or nothing to chance.    A typical day for the 71-year-old Hollendorfer and the 59-year-old Ward would challenge the workload of executives at any major corporate level. Two-hour lunches and coffee breaks are not on their priority list.    “I get to the track before three in the morning,” Ward said, “because we starting jogging horses at 3:30. It takes about a half-hour until we get every horse outside, check their legs, jog them up and down the road, and if we see something that will change our routine--the horse doesn’t look like it’s jogging right or if it’s got a hot foot--we’ll adjust the schedule.    “We won’t send a horse to the track without seeing it jog. We’ll watch all the horses breeze, and if something unexpected happens that we have to deal with, we diagnose it and take care of it. Meanwhile, we’re also going over entries and the condition book, making travel arrangements and staying current on out-of-town stakes and nominations.    “Each time a new condition book comes out, I go over it with Jerry, we agree on which races to run in, and then go out and try and find riders.     “I’ll ask him what claiming price we should run a horse for, but with big stakes horses, the owners have the final say. Jerry and I usually agree on the overnight races, but in some big stakes, it might take more time deciding which horses run in what races. All this consumes most of the day, plus doing the time sheets and the payroll.”    It’s a full plate even with a shared workload, but Ward is considering flying solo should a favorable chance come his way.    “I’m hoping to go on my own,” he said. “Right now, I’m in a very good position, but if the right opportunity comes along, or if Jerry one day decides not to train anymore, I would be qualified to take over. In the future, however, I definitely hope to train on my own.”    Despite his workaholic demeanor, Ward has found time recently to enjoy a slice of life in the domestic domain.    “I was married for a year on March 6 and it’s been the best time,” he said. “My wife (Carol) already had two kids, and now they’re our kids, and it’s really great.”    Ward is a worldly man with diversity of thought, traits Hollendorfer sought when he brought him on board.    “In my barn, I often give the reins to my assistants,” Hollendorfer said. “I like them to make decisions, so when I hired Dan Ward I told him that I wasn’t looking for a ‘yes man’ but for somebody who would state his opinion, and if he felt strongly about it, to stand his ground.    “I make the final decisions, but I want a person who is not afraid to make decisions and lets me know what’s going on when I’m not there. There’s not a successful trainer I know of who doesn’t fully have good support back at his barn, and that’s where I’m coming from.    “It’s not only Dan who makes important contributions, it’s (assistants) John Chatlos at Los Alamitos and Juan Arriaga and (wife) Janet Hollendorfer in Northern California.    “Your supporting cast of assistant trainers has to be solid, too,” said Hollendorfer, who had a trio of three-year-olds hoping to prove they were Triple Crown worthy at press time: Choo Choo, a son of English Channel owned and bred by Calumet Farm; Lecomte winner Instilled Regard; and San Vicente winner Kanthaka.    “If horses are good enough to go (on the Triple Crown trail), you go,” Ward said. “If you miss it, you concentrate on a late-season campaign. It worked well for Shared Belief and Battle of Midway.”     Shared Belief, champion two-year-old male of 2013, won 10 of 12 career starts but missed the 2014 Kentucky Derby due to an abscess in his right front foot. Given the necessary time off, he recovered and won the Pacific Classic later that year, and in 2015, the Santa Anita Handicap.    Battle of Midway outran his odds of 40-1 finishing third in the 2017 Kentucky Derby and won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile last November.    Ron McAnally, in the homestretch of a Hall of Fame career that has reaped a treasure trove of icons led by two-time Horse of the Year John Henry, is down to a dozen runners at age 85, none poised to join Bayakoa, Paseana, Northern Spur, and Tight Spot on the trainer’s list of champions.    As McAnally says, “I have outlived all my owners,” save for his wife, Deborah, and a handful of others.    Still, maiden or lowly claimer, Thoroughbreds deserve the best of care, which any dedicated trainer readily provides, cost be damned.    His glorious past well behind him, trouper that he is, McAnally remains a regular at Santa Anita, although leaving all the heavy lifting to longtime assistant Dan Landers.    Landers was born in a racing trunk, to paraphrase an old show business lexicon. His late father, Dale, rode at Santa Anita the first day it opened, on Christmas Day 1934, and won the second race on a horse named Let Her Play. Landers still has a chart of the race.    “Even if I weren’t here for a few weeks, Dan would know what to do because he’s been with us a long time,” McAnally said. “Dan really works hard, and although he’s got three or four grooms, if they don’t perform their duties as they should, he finds someone else.    “That’s the type of guy he is. He wants things done perfectly--the barn is always clean--and that’s what you look for in an assistant, someone who can take your place when you’re not there, and he’s there.    “He takes very little time off . . . he’s a perfectionist, and knows about everything, breeding, what horses are eligible for which races; he’s just an ideal assistant, and there’s no doubt in my mind he could very easily be a trainer himself.”    But barring a dramatic change of heart and mind, that won’t happen.    “I did train on my own while I worked with my dad and later Jay Robbins (trainer of the only back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Tiznow in 2000 and 2001),” Landers said, “but little good resulted.    “Ron and I do the best we can with the horses we have, but every trainer has a different way of doing things, although we all have the same goal: give the horses the best possible care and try and win races.”    Landers, 68, has been with McAnally since 1995, well past the days when John Henry was capturing national headlines and becoming a household word, yet has managed to keep the wolf away from the door.    “I’m sure money earned varies with different trainers,” Landers said, “and when a barn is winning races, a percentage trickles down to the crew. It’s a chain that goes from the trainer to the assistant to the grooms to the owners.    “But going on my own again is not an option. It’s too easy to go into debt.”    English-born Neil Drysdale and Irish-born assistant John O’Donoghue care for 30 head at their Santa Anita base, and have been a successful and unified team despite their disparate ethnic backgrounds.    “He’s an invaluable part of the operation,” said Drysdale, 70, a member of racing’s Hall of Fame since 2000, who spent four years as an assistant to legend of legends Charlie Whittingham from 1970 to 1974.    Drysdale gained proper discipline and upstanding principles from his father, Douglas, a British Royal Marine officer who also fought in Korea with the United States Marines.    “Charlie taught me everything I know, but not everything he knew,” Drysdale said, chuckling at the well-worn line. “John and I spend a lot of time together in the day-to-day training operation, but when I’m traveling, it’s comforting knowing that he’s there.    “John not only makes significant contributions, he’s an enjoyable man to be around and an excellent horseman.”     Sounds like a business association made in heaven, which in essence, it is. It wouldn’t have lasted nearly three decades if it weren’t.    “I started with Neil in 1989,” said O’Donoghue, 54, a native of Limerick, Ireland. “I always sort of wanted to go on my own, but the way racing has gone the last few years, with the cost of upkeep and overhead, it’s kind of tough to break out and do that.    “Neil and I both enjoy being around the horses, and that’s obviously important on a seven-day-a-week job. But everything goes along the same whether he’s here or not.    “On a typical day, we start at six in the morning and I work until four p.m. I take Tuesday afternoons off, but other than that, I’m on that schedule six-and-a-half days a week. There’s no rest, that’s true, so you have to love it, and I do.    “I have a wife (Sonya) and two grown children, and they’ve always been very understanding. My wife worked as an exercise rider, so she does recognize demands of the business.”    To boot, O’Donoghue has a daunting 40-mile one-way commute to Arcadia, site of Santa Anita. In Los Angeles these days, porous borders abounding, any commute is daunting. Picture the Indy 500 with no caution flags.    “We live in El Segundo near what was Hollywood Park, because that track was our base for years,” O’Donoghue said. The Inglewood track closed in December of 2013 and since been demolished.    Jim Barnes has been in racing since just after he learned to walk. More than four decades later, he stands at the game’s pinnacle, albeit in the towering shadow of its most recognizable trainer, Bob Baffert.    Barnes has been Baffert’s assistant for nearly 19 years, on a ride that has taken him around the world and enabled him to share an achievement the connections of only 11 other horses have in the past century: winning the Triple Crown.    “It’s been an absolutely phenomenal run, with all the big horses we’ve had since I started with Bob in 1999,” said Barnes, 58. “I thought we topped it all by winning the Triple Crown with American Pharoah in 2015, but then along comes Arrogate.    “We had many outstanding horses before American Pharoah and Arrogate, and after them I thought it can’t get any better than this, but Bob keeps buying them and developing them.”    Work days are not necessarily routine. “We get to the barn early in the morning, establish the agenda for the horses and for Bob, prepare horses that are breezing that day and the ones that are racing, and try to make sure everything goes as smooth as possible, that the horses are healthy and sound before they go out to train,” Barnes said.    Barnes has worked at the track since he was nine years old, when he cleaned stalls and rode a pony. “My father (Vern) had owned horses, and I always worked for his trainer (an old-timer named Jack Scott) during the summer,” said Barnes, a native of Santa Rosa in Northern California.    “At that age, I never realized I’d achieve what I have, traveling around the world and winning races, but the older I got, I knew what I wanted to be and what direction I needed to head to reach this level, and it wasn’t Northern California, but Southern California.    “I tried to place myself at a high plateau. I’ve worked for three Hall of Fame trainers: Charlie Whittingham, Jerry Hollendorfer, and Bob Baffert. I like this level of competition, although racing is racing. I get just as excited winning a maiden 20 as I do any other race, but if I’m going to do this, I want it to be at this level.    “I live for big events like the Triple Crown races, the Breeders’ Cup, the Dubai World Cup, and the Pegasus World Cup. Participating in them as an assistant has given me the confidence and knowledge that I can handle various circumstances and all types of racetracks.    “Each horse is different, and you’ve got to take a good horse when you’re traveling for a big race. That’s what it really takes to win. You can’t just load one up and head on the road. You’ve got to bring a good horse.    “If you’re going to win the Triple Crown, you’re going to need a really great horse. You need a champion to complete it. We’ve had some pretty good horses going into it, and American Pharoah finally pulled it off.”    Justify could be next. Winner of his three career starts by a combined margin of 19 lengths, capped by a three-length decision over Bolt d’Oro in the Santa Anita Derby, Justify is now the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby on May 5, with some sagacious racetrackers even heralding the chestnut son of Scat Daddy as the next Triple Crown king.     McKinzie, who had been one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby, will miss the race while recovering from a “twisted hock,” Baffert said. Promoted to victory through the disqualification of stablemate Solomini in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity last year at two, McKinzie now is being pointed to a summer campaign.    “Talk about timing,” Barnes said. “We lose McKinzie and along comes Justify, a horse that certainly has the goods. Right now, I don’t think I’d trade horses with anybody.”    Suffice it to say, this is not Barnes’s first rodeo.    “I did train on my own when I was young,” he said. “I got my license when I was 18. Would I do it now? If the right deal comes along, you never know. You have to think of your future, but it would take a pretty special offer for me to leave my position today.”    Barnes is not the only member of the family to be on Baffert’s list of valued employees. His wife Dana has been and remains one of Baffert’s best exercise riders, going on 20 years now, working the likes of champion West Coast and venerable multi-millionaire Hoppertunity.    “She might continue for another year or so,” Barnes said, “but for now she’s happy and gets along with the horses well. She’s also an asset because she can go to Dubai and assist on other road trips. It’s helpful to have someone like that in your barn.”    The Barneses have two grown daughters, Jenee (pronounced Jen-A), 30, and Jordan, 25. Jenee is an attorney who graduated from Tulane Law School before returning to California, where she passed the bar on her first try. She lives and practices in Visalia. Jordan studies music at the Los Angeles Musicians Institute.    Despite suffering a fractured pelvis and other injuries in a training mishap last year while on his pony, Barnes has recovered and is back on the beat. He has been working at ground level but plans to return to the saddle soon. Either way, he is at the ready when the call arises, although as in most long-term relationships, there have been bumps in the road.    “Bob and I get along quite well, and while there are times we butt heads a little, it’s never anything serious,” Barnes said. “He may want to lighten up on a horse’s work schedule, and I may want to work it harder, but at the end of the day, he makes all the decisions.”    Despite a glib persona given to one liners in the style of the late comic legend Henny Youngman (“Take my wife, please”), Baffert is a serious trainer. His record speaks for itself, and he readily admits his unprecedented success could not have been attained without selfless contributions from the likes of Jim Barnes.    “Jim is probably the most recognizable assistant in the country, mainly because of his exposure with American Pharoah,” Baffert said. “Jim was always on the road with him and practically lived with the horse.     “That allowed me to stay home and take care of things at Santa Anita. Jim knows what I want and the way I do things and how to maintain our program. I get good input from him and we learn as we go.     “We had our plan for the (2015) Triple Crown and knew exactly what we had to do. We didn’t feel extra pressure, because we’d been through it before, and having had the experience of preparing for and running in big races, our senses told us they worked.”    Barnes isn’t Baffert’s solo assistant, although he is the most popular face among the hoi polloi. Former trainer Mike Marlow oversees the Baffert operation at Los Alamitos Race Course in Cypress, California.    “He deals primarily with young horses coming in and horses arriving from the farm off a layoff, getting them ready and letting me know which ones are up to competing at Santa Anita,” said Baffert, who counts former assistants Eoin Harty and Tim Yakteen as graduates now enjoying successful training careers of their own.    “Marlow will let me know if we have something special at Los Al. He’s a good horseman. My assistants love racing, love coming to the track. I’ll tell Jimmy to take a week off, but he won’t because he loves being here so much. He thrives on the competition.    “Our chemistry is good and Mike puts in a lot of hours. He has a great passion for what he does.”    And that’s what it takes in a most demanding profession, one which requires being on call ‘round the clock, confined within the vast expanse of a racetrack backstretch, seldom escaping to the outside world with “normal people” for a trip to the mall, a day at the beach, or a night at the movies.     Truth be told, trainers take better care of their horses than they do of themselves.    Training is not a civil service job. There are no time cards, no punched clocks and few who exit.     As Dan Landers put it, “That’s why they have a fence around the track.     “To keep us in.”

By Ed Golden

The term “second banana” originated in the burlesque era, which enjoyed its heyday from the 1840s to the 1940s.

There was an extremely popular comedy skit where the main comic was given a banana after delivering the punch line to a particularly funny joke. The skit and joke were so widely known that the term “top banana” was coined to refer to anyone in the top position of an organization.

The term “second banana,” referring to someone at a pejorative plateau, had a similar origin from the same skit. There would have been no Martin without Lewis, no Abbott without Costello, and no Laurel without Hardy.

Racing has its own version of second bananas, only they’re not in it for the yuks. They’re called assistants, and it’s a serious business.

Most of the laughs come in the winner’s circle, and if not outright guffaws, there at least have been miles of smiles for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and assistant Dan Ward, who spent 22 years with the late Bobby Frankel before joining Hollendorfer in 2007.

While clandestinely harboring caring emotions in their souls, on the surface, Frankel did not suffer fools well, nor does Hollendorfer. A cynic has said Ward should have been eligible for combat pay during those tours.

But he endures, currently with one of the largest and most successful barns in the nation, with 50 head at Santa Anita alone. Hollendorfer hasn’t won more than 7,400 races being lucky. It is a labor of love through dedication and scrutinization to the nth degree, leaving little or nothing to chance.

A typical day for the 71-year-old Hollendorfer and the 59-year-old Ward would challenge the workload of executives at any major corporate level. Two-hour lunches and coffee breaks are not on their priority list.

“I get to the track before three in the morning,” Ward said, “because we starting jogging horses at 3:30. It takes about a half-hour until we get every horse outside, check their legs, jog them up and down the road, and if we see something that will change our routine--the horse doesn’t look like it’s jogging right or if it’s got a hot foot--we’ll adjust the schedule.

“We won’t send a horse to the track without seeing it jog. We’ll watch all the horses breeze, and if something unexpected happens that we have to deal with, we diagnose it and take care of it. Meanwhile, we’re also going over entries and the condition book, making travel arrangements and staying current on out-of-town stakes and nominations.

“Each time a new condition book comes out, I go over it with Jerry, we agree on which races to run in, and then go out and try and find riders.

“I’ll ask him what claiming price we should run a horse for, but with big stakes horses, the owners have the final say. Jerry and I usually agree on the overnight races, but in some big stakes, it might take more time deciding which horses run in what races. All this consumes most of the day, plus doing the time sheets and the payroll.”

Neil Drysdale & John O'Donoghue

It’s a full plate even with a shared workload, but Ward is considering flying solo should a favorable chance come his way.

“I’m hoping to go on my own,” he said. “Right now, I’m in a very good position, but if the right opportunity comes along, or if Jerry one day decides not to train anymore, I would be qualified to take over. In the future, however, I definitely hope to train on my own.”

Despite his workaholic demeanor, Ward has found time recently to enjoy a slice of life in the domestic domain.

“I was married for a year on March 6 and it’s been the best time,” he said. “My wife (Carol) already had two kids, and now they’re our kids, and it’s really great.”

Ward is a worldly man with diversity of thought, traits Hollendorfer sought when he brought him on board.

“In my barn, I often give the reins to my assistants,” Hollendorfer said. “I like them to make decisions, so when I hired Dan Ward I told him that I wasn’t looking for a ‘yes man’ but for somebody who would state his opinion, and if he felt strongly about it, to stand his ground.

“I make the final decisions, but I want a person who is not afraid to make decisions and lets me know what’s going on when I’m not there. There’s not a successful trainer I know of who doesn’t fully have good support back at his barn, and that’s where I’m coming from.

“It’s not only Dan who makes important contributions, it’s (assistants) John Chatlos at Los Alamitos and Juan Arriaga and (wife) Janet Hollendorfer in Northern California.

“Your supporting cast of assistant trainers has to be solid, too,” said Hollendorfer, who had a trio of three-year-olds hoping to prove they were Triple Crown worthy at press time: Choo Choo, a son of English Channel owned and bred by Calumet Farm; Lecomte winner Instilled Regard; and San Vicente winner Kanthaka.

“If horses are good enough to go (on the Triple Crown trail), you go,” Ward said. “If you miss it, you concentrate on a late-season campaign. It worked well for Shared Belief and Battle of Midway.”  Shared Belief, champion two-year-old male of 2013, won 10 of 12 career starts but missed the 2014 Kentucky Derby due to an abscess in his right front foot. Given the necessary time off, he recovered and won the Pacific Classic later that year, and in 2015, the Santa Anita Handicap.

Battle of Midway outran his odds of 40-1 finishing third in the 2017 Kentucky Derby and won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile last November.

Ron McAnally, in the homestretch of a Hall of Fame career that has reaped a treasure trove of icons led by two-time Horse of the Year John Henry, is down to a dozen runners at age 85, none poised to join Bayakoa, Paseana, Northern Spur, and Tight Spot on the trainer’s list of champions. As McAnally says, “I have outlived all my owners,” save for his wife, Deborah, and a handful of others.

Still, maiden or lowly claimer, Thoroughbreds deserve the best of care, which any dedicated trainer readily provides, cost be damned. His glorious past well behind him, trouper that he is, McAnally remains a regular at Santa Anita, although leaving all the heavy lifting to longtime assistant Dan Landers.

Dan Landers

Landers was born in a racing trunk, to paraphrase an old show business lexicon. His late father, Dale, rode at Santa Anita the first day it opened, on Christmas Day 1934, and won the second race on a horse named Let Her Play. Landers still has a chart of the race.

“Even if I weren’t here for a few weeks, Dan would know what to do because he’s been with us a long time,” McAnally said. “Dan really works hard, and although he’s got three or four grooms, if they don’t perform their duties as they should, he finds someone else.

“That’s the type of guy he is. He wants things done perfectly--the barn is always clean--and that’s what you look for in an assistant, someone who can take your place when you’re not there, and he’s there.

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