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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.
Fox Hill Farm’s Old Fashioned, a near-consensus early favorite for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I) a month ago, is the morning line favorite to win a rematch with Win Willy, the horse that knocked him from the role of Derby favorite, when the two meet in Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby (GII) at Oaklawn Park.
The Larry Jones-trained Old Fashioned is the 9-5 morning line choice in a field of 10 horses entered in the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Derby prep. The son of Unbridled’s Song will attempt to avenge the only loss of his career as he takes on Jer-Mar Stable’s Win Willy, the 56-1 upset winner over Old Fashioned in the Rebel Stakes (GIII) at Oaklawn on March 14. The Mac Robertson-trained son of 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos is unbeaten in three races on dirt and is the 7-2 second choice in the Arkansas Derby.
Jockey Cliff Berry was aboard for the Rebel and gets the return call in the Arkansas Derby for Robertson, the 34-year-old son of veteran Chicago-based trainer Hugh Robertson.
Old Fashioned will have a new partner in the saddle as Terry Thompson replaces New York-based Ramon Dominguez in what Jones described as a one-race deal for the Arkansas Derby.
"Terry knows the track," Jones said. "He knows when he needs to be in, when he needs to be out. He kind of knows where the groove is. We're expecting him to find that trip to make it play for us."
Another interesting contender is Bo Hirsh’s Papa Clem, who launched his career on the synthetic tracks in California and comes into the Arkansas Derby off a solid effort in his debut on conventional dirt when he raced over a “sloppy” surface in the Louisiana Derby (GII) at Fair Grounds. Jockey Rafael Bejarano will ride 3-year-old son of Smart Strike.
Others in the field include Lane’s End (GII) runner-up Flying Private, Captain Cherokee, Flat Out, Poltergeist, Ziegfeld, Danger to Society and Summer Bird.
The Arkansas Derby will be telecast live on ESPN from 6-7 p.m. (all times EDT).
KENTUCKY/HOLD ME BACK, UNBEATEN CHARITABLE MAN HEAD TOYOTA BLUE GRASS – Saturday’s $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass (GI) at Keeneland does not have a major marquee name in its field of 11 3-year-olds, but the race is filled with interesting horses that could thrust themselves into the Kentucky Derby picture with big efforts.
The 3-1 morning line favorite is WinStar Farm LLC’s late-developing Hold Me Back, who returned from a long layoff to score an emphatic victory in the Lane’s End Stakes over the Polytrack surface at Turfway Park. The Bill Mott-trained son of Giant’s Causeway drew post 10 for the 85th running of the Blue Grass, which is also run over Polytrack.
“His race in the Lane’s End was extremely impressive,” said Elliott Walden, vice president of WinStar Farm. “That had been our focal point and he ran a super race. Our goal all along was the Lane’s End and the Blue Grass.”
Hold Me Back is unbeaten in three starts over synthetic surfaces and will be ridden again by three-time Kentucky Derby winner Kent Desormeaux.
Close behind at morning line odds of 7-2 is Theregoesjojo, third to Quality Road and Dunkirk in the recent Florida Derby (GI) and the only horse to a hold a win over the former. Kentucky Derby winner Calvin Borel will ride the Ken McPeek trainee from post three.
Mr. and Mrs. William Warren’s Charitable Man is unbeaten in two races, but the most recent of those was a win in the Belmont Futurity (GI) in September. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s colt was sidelined by a saucer fracture in a shin last fall, but has trained well for his return to racing in the Blue Grass. The 4-1 shot will be ridden by Alan Garcia.
While Hold Me Back, Theregoesjojo and Charitable Man are trying to prove that they belong in Kentucky Derby 135, Mafaaz is already guaranteed a spot in the starting gate on May 2 at Churchill Downs. The British-based colt won the first Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes at Kempton Park in March, which guaranteed his starting spot in the “Run for the Roses."
Richard Hills was aboard Mafaaz at Kempton and will be aboard the colt on Saturday.
Others in the very balanced field in the Toyota Blue Grass include Lecomte (GIII) runner-up Patena; Sam F. Davis (GIII) winner General Quarters; Terrain, third in the Louisiana Derby (GII), Rushaway winner Cliffy’s Future; Tampa Bay Derby (GIII) runner-up Join in the Dance; Loch Dubh; and Massone.
The Toyota Blue Grass will be televised via tape delay during the ESPN telecast of the Arkansas Derby.
I Want Revenge, Godolphin Horses Arrive at Churchill – Wood Memorial (GI) winner I Want Revenge has settled in at Churchill Downs following his arrival at the track early Tuesday morning following a van ride from New York.
Godolphin’s double-barrelled Derby threats Regal Ransom and Desert Party, the 1-2 finishers in the $2 million UAE Derby, arrived at the Louisville track late Thursday afternoon. The two colts were scheduled to spent 24-48 hours in quarantine after their trip from Dubai.
EAST/QUALITY ROAD HAS QUARTER CRACK, BUT INJURY RESPONDING WELL – There was something close to a collective gasp early in the week from admirers of Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth (GII) winner Quality Road when trainer Jimmy Jerkens revealed the colt was being treated for a quarter crack.
That foot ailment plagued 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown and foot specialist Ian McKinlay, who had treated Big Brown, was called in to patch the colt’s injured foot. Quality Road returned to the track for a gallop on Wednesday and Jerkens liked what he saw.
“You always have to be guarded, but the patch went on there good, he galloped great and came back good,” said Jerkens. “These things can be a little tricky, but Ian is really confident about it, which is good.”
Quality Road was scheduled to work on Friday or Saturday, depending on weather.