A man in the crowd, with a horse

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So you want to be a horse trainer…

Jerry Hollendorfer, winner of 6,870 races, Hall of Famer, California legend saddles his horse in the paddock at Charles Town, signs autographs, poses for iPhone photos, wishes his owner luck and starts walking.

First, he stops among the crowd outside on the track apron. Wearing a gray suit, blue shirt, dark-blue tie and black sunglasses, he could be a secret-service agent (OK, a small one). He scans the track, glances at the tote board, eyes up his surroundings, makes a mental note of who looks like a threat maybe , then turns and walks inside.

Like the 6-furlong dirt track outside, the Charles Town grandstand is small, low-slung, lively and cool in its own way, especially this day, the day of the $1.5 million Charles Town Classic. The track’s richest race drew the world’s top-ranked Thoroughbred – the star of Hollendorfer’s barn, Shared Belief – to headline a 13-race card starting at 12:45 p.m.

The 4-year-old son of Candy Ride, owned in part by sports radio personality Jim Rome, is 2-5 in the program and 1-9 in reality in a field of nine. He’s supposed to win, collect about $900,000, thrill the fans and go back to California while looking for a rematch with Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Bayern.

Thinking of all that, or not, Hollendorfer steps through a door of black glass and into a world of televisions showing racing from all over the country, betting windows, bars, fans of all ages, shapes, sizes and beverage preferences.

The best-dressed man in the building answers his phone, looks at a TV, turns left and starts waking again. He approaches the program/souvenir stand staffed by women who call everyone honey, makes a slight right, then a left down a ramp. At the elevator, he pauses. Up is the Skyline Terrace dining room. Right is the Hollywood Casino.

Hollendorfer makes a U-turn, punches off his phone and pockets it. He walks back up the ramp, past the program/souvenir stand. A man wishes him good luck. Hollendorfer nods thanks and keeps walking, back toward where he started.

He pauses at a bar to his left, briefly looking like he might order a drink. Nah, he just wants information from the TV suspended along with the neon signs. Five minutes to post. Hollendorfer turns again, walks up the hall past a row of old televisions collecting dust on the floor.

Soon, he’s on the move again – back down the hall, past the TVs (once state-of-the-art and now square dinosaurs), across the room, through the blacked-out door, outside and up the ramp. In the shade of the grandstand, a warm day has turned cool. Out on the track, the horses get ready in the sun – a rare daylight race for Charles Town. Shared Belief is 1-9, still. The show pool grows by the blink and won’t stop until it hits $692,110 – all but $70,575 on Hollendorfer’s horse.

A spectator carrying a beer, a cigarette, a program, a smile and three days of stubble ambles up next to the trainer. “Thanks for bringing him here, Jerry,” the man says. Hollendorfer nods, that’s all, turns around and heads back inside the building. Hurrying now, he pauses as the last bettors discuss what to do and shove more money at tellers. Hollendorfer turns right and stands in the back of a small simulcast area with flat screens, long tables, chairs. He finds the home track’s feed amid a sea of blinking races, looks up as the horses start to load, sees an empty seat – first one on the left, back row, next to a big guy in a black flat-brimmed ball cap – and takes it.

The trainer of the favorite for the richest race in the state sits on a maroon plastic chair, places his left hand on a pillar and watches a TV just like the paying customers.

None of them see much.

Officially the 1-5 favorite, Shared Belief breaks a little slow, with a jink or a hop, but with the field, then shuffles back to last. He leans into the quick first turn as Warrioroftheroses and Moreno roll to the front. The favorite passes a horse coming into the stretch, but is still well behind and nowhere near his usual tactical, stalking spot. On the second of three turns, Mike Smith pushes and pumps, implores and insists, slaps the horse’s right shoulder with the whip and gets no response. In strides, the Hall of Fame jockey does the opposite, pulls back on the reins. Shared Belief drops off the screen.

Hollendorfer never moves, never winces, never takes his hand off that pillar. He doesn’t kick over the chair or punch the wall or curse his luck or even run for that dark door he walked through a few minutes earlier. He’s lost more than 22,000 races, plenty of them far bigger than this one. He stands, stares at the TV once more as it shows the stretch run, then walks back through that dark door and into the day.

On the backside, his horse gets in an ambulance.

 

Editor’s Note: Shared Belief flew back to California Tuesday with a fractured right hip. He’ll miss several months, first with an extended break at Pegasus Training Center in Washington, then return to training with Hollendorfer.