Keeping up, and keeping on

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Todd Pletcher had one eye on the big screen television and another on a reporter who asked him about Fairbanks returning from a brief respite to win the Duke of Magenta Saturday.

In mid-sentence, Pletcher stopped and congratulated Valerie Clement, wife of trainer Christophe Clement.

“Nice win, congratulations,” Pletcher said.

It was, indeed, a nice win. Clement’s Mauralakana had streaked home to win the Beverly D. at Arlington Park.

Clement was surprised. And touched.

“That was very nice, you know?” Clement said. “He has so much on his mind, horses running everywhere. I’m here by myself and he takes the time to say that. It was very nice.”

Yes, very nice.

It shouldn’t have been surprising. But, in a way, it was.

“Being vicious doesn’t make the horses run faster,” Clement said. “You don’t have to be vicious. You should be nice. That was very nice.”

Sometimes the game and its players can be vicious. Sad but true.

It doesn’t make the horses run faster.

John Hertler knows that.

Nobody’s nicer than  Hertler. The 57-year-old trainer doesn’t know vicious. Soft-spoken, generous, he hasn’t changed since I galloped horses for him in 1992.

Battling health issues, Hertler comes to work every day and trains his horses.

He never complains, never wavers, never raises his voice or talks bad about anyone. Ask him how he’s doing. Go ahead ask him how he’s feeling.

“Good,” Hertler says. “You all right?”

Yeah, John, I’m all right. We’re all, all right.

Hertler hit the track in 1966, catching on as at hotwalker for P.G. Johnson. Hertler liked horses. Just liked them. His family had nothing to do with them, he liked watching Bonanza on TV, not for the gun fights, but for the horses.

“I just liked horses. Just loved horses,” Hertler said. “My brother took me horseback riding but he didn’t make a career out of it. I just fell in love with it.”

A pony boy named Jerry hooked Hertler with Johnson.

“I had never been away from home,” Hertler said of his first summer at Saratoga. “P.G. was like my father, he watched over me. He made sure I bunked with the right guy. Riding the pony, doing a little bit of galloping and hotwalking.”

Like most of us, Hertler wanted to be a jockey first. Like most of us, that plan went out the window about the time puberty hit.

“Came to the racetrack, wanted to be a jockey,” Hertler said. “It didn’t work out, I was too heavy. I weighed about 130 pounds, tried to ride, got down to about 120, but I was useless, falling off, couldn’t get down. That’s how I ended up here, I was at the barn in the afternoon instead of the races.”

Hertler worked for Johnson for about 12 years, eventually going out on his own with a horse he bought off Allen Jerkens.

Peacefully Yours won on September 29, 1978, Hertler’s  first winner. She made about $60,000 for Hertler. His first Saratoga stakes winner, he thinks, was Slew o’ Gold, winner of the 1994 Whitney. Hertler won the Forego that summer, too, with Mugatea.

“I’ve been here every year since that first summer, 40 years, doesn’t seem that long,” Hertler said. “I still miss P.G. Holding court, he liked doing that. Every time I talked to him, I learned something. He and Jerkens, every time you talk to them, you learned something.”

Javier Castellano rode Latitude Forty to win Saturday’s Yaddo for Hertler. The 30-year-old jockey learns something from Hertler, a man undeterred by his health and dedicated to his sport.

“I’m very happy for John Hertler. He’s a lovely guy, always happy, never negative,” Castellano said. “He’s a good example for all us. I know sometimes I complain about a bad day, about this, about that, then you see the example John Hertler sets, he’s there early every morning, he does a good job. He’s the first in the barn. He’s amazing. He’s unbelievable. These owners show loyalty, it’s beautiful.”

At the end of the morning on Tuesday, Hertler shuffles down his shedrow, looking in each stall, at each horse. His assistant Victor Berrios goes over the final changes to a feeding chart.

“I couldn’t do it without him,” Hertler says. “He’s my lifeline.”

On his way out of the barn, Hertler stops.

“You ever go to the YMCA here?”

“No.”

“You should check that place out. It’s gorgeous,” Hertler says. “I saw Cot Campbell there, working out like an 18-year-old kid, jumping from one machine to the other, sweating, lifting weights, he’s unbelievable.”

“He’d probably say the same thing about you.”

“I couldn’t keep up with him,” Hertler said. “I’d try, but I couldn’t.”

We’re all trying to keep up with Hertler.