Saddled with bit of doubt? Not him

Horse racing: Troy Holland carries enthusiasm and determination into his quest to make it big as a trainer.

December 25, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Troy Holland wasn't sure about his life's work until he watched Real Quiet win the Kentucky Derby in 1998. Actually, it wasn't Real Quiet, the overachiever nicknamed The Fish, who captured Holland's eye. It was The Fish's trainer, Bob Baffert.

Wearing dark glasses and a dark suit, his white hair shimmering and his cocky smile glowing as he hoisted the cherished trophy above his head, Baffert was to Holland everything the young man wanted to be - no, everything he was already, if only he could get the masses to notice.

And Holland would get them to notice, he decided then and there, by training horses - with panache.

"The flashy jokester," Holland says, referring to the wisecracking Baffert. "I loved that. His character reminded me of myself. I like to be flashy. I like the attention. I love talking trash.

"I said, `I'm going to the Derby. I want an Eclipse Award. I want the Hall of Fame. I'm telling you, I want it all. I'm going to be the Tiger Woods of horse racing.' "

Holland, 31, one of the few black trainers in the country, has a long way to go. He has won a grand total of five races since beginning to train last year under his own name, although he trained for several years as an understudy to a retired trainer.

He trains nine horses at Laurel Park for six different owners, an indication, he says, that his style has appeal to people investing money in the sport. Holland says he's beginning to turn profits for his owners - if not with winning purses, then with bold business moves - a feat highly valued in a sport in which horse owners often lose money and small trainers struggle.

Holland knows the menu at that end of the food chain. The only way he could afford to buy half of a cheap racehorse was to wait for his family's income-tax refund.

Until this year, his stable usually numbered one - one horse at a time. The first horse he trained broke a leg - in the lead at the head of the stretch at Pimlico Race Course at odds of 19-1 - and had to be euthanized. Next, his horse dumped his rider while training in the morning, bolted off the track back toward his stall and ran smack into a Dumpster. He survived but became another economic liability, requiring medical attention and food but earning nothing.

Holland relates these stories with surprising good cheer. He hardly stops smiling as he recounts the hardships of training one horse - and grooming it and walking it and cleaning his stall - while holding down full-time jobs and planning his assault upon the racing industry.

"It was easy working in those days, because the dream was so real," Holland says. "I knew it was going to work out. I just knew."

In a sport, and especially in a state, where pessimism reigns, Holland is a bolt of sunlight with his unbridled enthusiasm and determination. He has deep roots in racing from which to draw inspiration.

Racing family

His aunt, Sylvia Bishop, 83 and living in West Virginia, worked 65 years in racing and was the first black female trainer in the United States. His grandfather, Raymond "Skeets" Holland, was a well-known and much-heralded jockey who died in 1993.

Troy Holland practically grew up at his grandfather's house on Denmore Avenue, so near Pimlico they could hear the race call from the backyard. The boy put his grandfather's equipment on his hobbyhorse and rode as if that Derby trophy were at stake. He accompanied his grandfather to the track and swore that someday, just like Skeets, he would become a jockey.

But Holland grew too big, and he grew out of that dream. He sold cars, worked as a temp in clerical services and labored all night in a food-distribution warehouse. He drifted back to racing in his 20s, working with relatives at Charles Town in West Virginia. He was 28 when Real Quiet won the Derby. He saw the flashy Baffert and said: "I can do that."

That can-do attitude has won others over. Holland flew to Ocala, Fla., to look at horses and observe the operation of American Equistock, which buys, sells, breaks and trains horses. Joe Senkovich, who manages the business, was so impressed, he sent Holland four horses to train and is about to send him a fifth.

"He was like a sponge," Senkovich says. "He showed up and said, 'Teach me.' He called his wife three times just to check in. He had such strong family values. He's a Christian. You embrace those kinds of people."

Senkovich, who is white, describes racing as a country-club business that makes it difficult for young black trainers to break in.

Honest, well-liked

"Ours is an elitist, negative industry," Senkovich says. "And here's a guy who loves the business, who's honest, who you'd want as a spokesman. You can't help but like him. How can you not want to help him?"

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