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Veteran Trainer Robert Holthus Dead at 77; Memorial at Churchill Downs on Saturday

| Churchill Downs Communications | 11/22/2011 #
  • Robert Holthus (Reed Palmer Photography, Churchill Downs)

  • Pure Clan, a Grade I winner on turf and three-time stakes winner at Churchill Downs, was a Holthus star. (Reed Palmer, CD)

Veteran trainer Robert Holthus, a regular on racing circuits in Kentucky, Arkansas and the Midwest for nearly 60 years, died Tuesday morning in Louisville, Ky. at the age of 77.

He was preparing to head to Churchill Downs to oversee his horses’ morning training when Holthus was stricken by an apparent heart attack.  He died a short time later at a local hospital.

Holthus is survived by his wife, Bonnie; sons Paul and David; and a daughter, Debbie.

A local memorial service for Holthus has been scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 26 at 10:30 a.m. (EST) at Christ Chapel on the Churchill Downs backside.  An additional memorial service will be scheduled later in Hot Springs, Ark.

"This is a very sad day for all members of the Churchill Downs and Kentucky Derby families as we have lost a revered figure and a true friend in Robert Holthus,” said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs.  “His talents as a horseman are easily appreciated by a look at wins and earnings that serve as the bottom line for a remarkable career, but Bob was also a true gentleman to everyone who crossed his path.  He has meant so much to fellow horsemen, fans who have watched his horses compete here for more than a half-century and to members of our Churchill Downs team.  Our hearts and prayers are with the Holthus family and Bob’s many friends during this time of great loss.”

His career, which began at Nebraska’s Columbus racetrack in 1952, started well before the launch of official record-keeping for American Thoroughbred racing.  But Holthus saddled documented winners of 2,824 races, which ranks 28th on the sport’s all-time win list, and compiled earnings of $46,085,877.  He had at least 146 stakes wins, with 27 of those in graded stakes events.

Career highlights included a pair of victories in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park with Proper Reality (1988) and Lawyer Ron (2006), both of whom were among his five career starters in the Kentucky Derby (GI).  Proper Reality finished fourth to Winning Colors in his “Run for the Roses,” while Lawyer Ron finished 12th behind Barbaro.  Holthus’ other Derby hopes were Our Trade Winds (12th in 1972), Pro Prado (13th in 2004) and Greater Good (13th in 2005).

Proper Reality went on to win the Metropolitan Mile (GI) at Belmont Park and the Iselin Handicap (GI) at Monmouth Park.  Lawyer Ron’s wins in the spring of his 3-year-old season for Holthus also included the Southwest and Rebel Stakes (GIII).

Another outstanding horse in his career was Pure Clan, a stakes winner on both turf and dirt.  Her wins on the grass included the Flower Bowl Invitational (GI) at Belmont Park and the American Oaks (GI) at Hollywood Park.  Two of Pure Clan’s stakes victories came on the dirt at Churchill Downs in the 2007 Golden Rod (GII) and Pocahontas (GIII), both races for 2-year-old fillies, and she also won the Regret (GII) for 3-year-old fillies on turf the following year.

Holthus never won a training title at Churchill Downs, but won 211 races locally and had six documented top five finishes in “leading trainer” races.  They included:

  • Third place finishes in the Spring Meet in 1974 (9 wins) and ’75 (10 wins);
  • A fourth-place finish in the 2005 Spring Meet (14 wins); and
  • Fifth-place finishes in the 2006 Fall Meet (six wins), 1997 Spring (11 wins) and 1995 Spring (nine wins).

Other successes among his 11 career stakes victories at Churchill Downs included renewals of the Churchill Downs Handicap with Bay Phantom, Holthus’ first local stakes win in 1966, and Top Avenger, who won a division of the race in 1982.  He also won the River City Handicap with Suliman (1981), Grade III Bashford Manor with A.V. Eight (1995), the first of two Pocahontas wins with The Happy Hopper (1998), Grade III American Turf with Air Rocket (1999), Grade II Humana Distaff with Ruby Surprise (2000) and the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club (Greater Good, 2004).

His earned his last victory at Churchill Downs with Dance Caller on Nov. 18, 2010.

The native of Table Rock, Neb. was the son of a trainer and is the all-time win leader at Oaklawn Park. Holthus earned nine “leading trainer” titles the Arkansas track and his Oaklawn exploits earned Holthus enshrinement in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.  He also won training titles at Arlington Park, Hawthorne Race Course, Louisiana Downs, Detroit Race Course, and Kentucky’s Ellis Park and Turfway Park.