Friday, December 19, 2014

Holthus Gearing Up for Big Meet

Returning from an absence of nearly two decades, trainer Paul Holthus parlayed a small group of claimers into one of the most successful years of his career in 2014. He saddled 23 winners from just 108 starters - despite essentially putting a wrap on his year after Indiana Grand closed Nov. 1.

Holthus launched his comeback at Oaklawn, and his horses earned $433,319 overall, the third-highest total since the trainer struck out on his own in 1980.

“I thought I’d do well” said Holthus, 53, the son of the late Bob Holthus, Oaklawn's all-time leading trainer. “I never anticipated not doing well. You can’t go into it thinking you’re going to do bad, can you?”

Holthus saddled 379 winners before he quit training during the 1995 Oaklawn meeting to become the agent for Garrett Gomez, then among the most promising young jockeys in the country. He left the track some five years later to work for H.E. “Tex” Sutton Forwarding Company, the famed Lexington, Ky.-based equine air transporter, eventually rising to vice president and general manager. He spent eight years with Tex Sutton before returning to Hot Springs, Ark., when he went to work for Wheeler Printing Co.

The Hot Springs native returned to the track at the 2012 Oaklawn meet as the agent for jockeys Jose Medina and Carlos Gonzalez and assisted trainer Randy Morse following the 2012 and 2013 Oaklawn meetings.

The building blocks for Holthus’ training comeback began in the fall of 2013 when he privately purchased Lasting Impact from trainer Mark Hennig, and Morse, on behalf of Holthus’ future wife, Nancy Ury, claimed Signature Event for $5,000 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

Lasting Impact finished second in a Jan. 11 claiming race at Oaklawn, which marked Holthus’ first starter since March 9, 1995. Signature Event’s Jan. 12 victory represented the first for Holthus since Feb. 24, 1995. He finished the meeting with a sparkling 31 percent strike rate (9 for 29) and purse earnings of $163,051.

The star of Holthus’ stable, which hovered around a half-dozen, was Franks Officer Gal, who bankrolled nearly $100,000 in 2014 after being claimed for $7,500 in February. Franks Officer Gal subsequently won three races for Holthus at Oaklawn, including one in starter-allowance company.

“Hopefully, we’ll win a few starter races here,” Holthus said. “She’s still eligible for $7,500 starters. They wouldn’t go all summer. She never got to run in any.”

Franks Officer Gal is owned by the N P H Stable (Holthus and wife Nancy) and Bob and Bridget Summers of Maumelle, Ark. The four are partners in all eight horses he has at Oaklawn.

“That’s a good number for me,” Holthus said. “Obviously, we want to increase the quality of the eight. That’s our goal. I don’t have any desire to have any more.”

Holthus won with 13 of 72 starters at Indiana Grand.

Drogue Back at Oaklawn

Drogue hasn’t raced in almost a year, but the 6-year-old son of Victory Gallop is back in light training at Oaklawn and could run before the meeting ends April 11, trainer Mike Johnson said.

In his last start, Drogue, bred and owned by Oaklawn President Charles Cella, scored a record-breaking nine-length victory in the $100,000 Fifth Season Stakes on Jan. 11 – opening weekend of the 2014 racing season.

It was the most lopsided margin of victory in the Fifth Season’s 26-year history and the biggest career score for Johnson, a former assistant to now-retired trainer Pete Vestal, who resides on a 106-acre farm in the tiny southeast Arkansas community of Palmyra.

Johnson was pointing Drogue toward the $100,000 Essex Handicap about a month after the Fifth Season, but the horse was sidelined for the remainder of 2014 after a bone chip discovered in an ankle required surgery in early March.

“I wouldn’t say he had complications from the surgery, but it just took him a while to get over it,” Johnson said.

Johnson said Drogue was turned out at Longfield Farm in Goshen, Ky., following the surgery until he rejoined the trainer in mid-June. Drogue was initially hand-walked, then began jogging around Oct. 1 at Churchill Downs. He is scheduled to begin galloping early next month.

“I just gave him plenty of time to get over it and back to feeling like himself,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, we’ll get a start with him at the end of the meet. By just looking at him, you wouldn’t think he’s been out of training,” Johnson said. “He didn’t get too fat at the farm.”

The recently retired Cyber Secret, also owned by Cella, finished a distant second to Drogue in the Fifth Season.

Cyber Secret won the 2013 Oaklawn Handicap.

Finish Lines

Ride On Curlin, runner-up in the 2014 Arkansas Derby and Preakness, is scheduled to arrive Saturday. … Multiple stakes-winning sprinter Brewing posted a 5-furlong bullet work (1:01) over a good surface Friday morning for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Brewing won the $100,000 Gazebo and $100,000 Bachelor Stakes at the 2014 Oaklawn meeting. … Gentlemen’s Bet, unraced since finishing third in the $1.5 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) in November 2013, worked a half-mile in :52.20 Friday morning for trainer Ron Moquett. Gentlemen’s Bet recorded the first timed workout of the 2015 Oaklawn season (a half-mile in :54) on Dec. 8. … Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron is the keynote speaker at the annual Oaklawn Kickoff Banquet Wednesday, Jan. 7, at the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel in North Little Rock. A reception and silent auction begins at 5:15 p.m., with dinner at 6:45 p.m. Individual tickets are $50; sponsorship tables of 10 are $500. Deadline for ordering individual or table tickets is Jan. 2. For additional information, contact the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce at (501) 372-5959.

-30-