Four times, Hall of Fame Bay Area-based horse trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has seen the backside of the Kentucky Derby race track, a vicinity reserved for those most familiar with the rigors and rewards of the graded stakes race.
Each of those times, the 65-year-old has attempted to strike gold and nab the coveted Derby trophy and rose garland. And each time, he has come up empty.
But on Saturday, as luck would have it — and in horse racing anybody could use a little bit of luck — Hollendorfer, behind 3-year-old thoroughbred Rousing Sermon, will give the Run for the Roses a fifth go at the 138th Kentucky Derby.
“He’s a real laid-back horse,” Hollendorfer said of Rousing Sermon. “I could probably send him to China and it wouldn’t bother him. But he’s trying to get into the big time. And we’ll find out soon if he can.”
The 1¼-mile, two-minute hot-blooded race will surely test the steed, but Hollendorfer, a veteran of over 6,000 racing victories, likes his chances.
“It seems like there’s going to be a considerable pace factor in the race,” he said. “And our horse is a horse that comes from off the pace. And it looks like he can get the distance. So in theory, if you can get a fast pace up front, and be finishing at the end, you’d have a chance to run very well.”
Hollendorfer has won the filly equivalent to the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, three times.
“There’s nothing like walking over with your horse to the Oaks — or the Derby — and the people are standing and giving you their attention with a standing ovation,” said Hollendorfer, who moved from Redwood City to Point Richmond after Bay Meadows closed.
Hollendorfer’s passion for ponies began as a child when his father purchased a family horse in their native Ohio.
“The reason my dad bought the pony was because he had always wanted one when he was a kid, and he never got it,” he said. “So he got one for us.”
Hollendorfer’s equestrian education continued throughout his adolescence with watching races at Ohio’s Northfield Park. But it took visiting friends in California in 1973 that convinced him to pursue a career in horse racing.
In “looking for something different,” the Akron State University graduate sought out the rather odd job cleaning stalls in California.
From there, he went on to hot walking. Then, Hollendorfer progressed to grooming and then assistant training before gaining national recognition in the mid-80s as a trainer.
“After all the years that I’ve put in, you really gain a respect for what these horses do on a daily basis,” Hollendorfer said. “They’re truly great athletes and its very nice be around an environment like that.”