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.
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