Is Mark Hennig the next Shug McGaughey?
Absolutely, said Barry Irwin, one of the managing partners of the Team Valor stable, and the man who plucked Hennig out of assistant-trainerdom for D. Wayne Lukas less than a year ago and set him up in business.
"I remember one comment before I hired him and it came from Dr. Gary Lavin [head veterinarian at Churchill Downs, who is also credited with giving McGaughey his start]. "Dr. Lavin told me, 'Nobody's heard of Mark. But he's trained more horses [while working for Lukas] that will one day be in the Hall of Fame than any other trainer that no one's ever heard of.' "
Even Hennig's contract is patterned after the one McGaughey, considered the best thirtyorforty- something trainer in the business, has with the Phipps family stable, thought of as the ultimate job in racing.
No records are kept in this category, but if Hennig, 28, wins the Preakness on Saturday with Personal Hope, he will be one of the youngest trainers to win the race.
Hennig is the baby-faced horseman who has the temperament of a 50-year-old guy. He takes a bit of chewing tobacco now and then in the tradition of his Kentucky hardboot upbringing.
He is making his first trip to the Preakness. He hasn't arrived with a long shot, but with a big, strong, aggressive colt who many people think can win the race after finishing fourth in the Derby.
Like McGaughey, Hennig is guaranteed a flat salary from his main employer (Team Valor of Arcadia, Calif.), but is allowed to have six horses for outside clients.
That's how Hennig wound up with Personal Hope, owned by former Lukas clients, Debi and Lee Lewis of Lubbock, Texas.
"He might be young," Irwin said, "but he's seen and done more with horses than a lot of people do in a Lifetime. He's taken horses we've had that were down for the count and resuscitated them into stakes performers. When we hired him, the one thing he lacked was experience with European horses, which we buy a lot of. I don't know how he's figured it out, but he's done as good with those horses -- like Star of Cozzene, Kanityr, Lady Blessington and a new horse we have named Super Mec -- than the trainers that had them abroad. As far as we're concerned, when we got Mark, we signed a Shaquille O'Neal."
All of that might be well and good, but how is Personal Hope going to fare in the Preakness?
"I have a lot more confidence in him now than I did before the Derby," Hennig said yesterday. "He showed he could run with those horses and he relaxed well off of pace-setter Storm Tower. I don't anticipate we're going to have a first quarter run in :22 1/5 [the Derby time] in the Preakness. He was the only horse that stayed close to that pace and then had something left at the end."
Hennig thinks the horse's natural speed and ability to handle Pimlico's sharp turns make him well-suited to the Preakness.
"He's a very determined horse," Hennig said. "He's now gotten into speed duels with three horses -- River Special [San Felipe Stakes], Eliza [Santa Anita Derby] and Storm Tower [Kentucky Derby] -- and after they are through with him, he's sent them to the farm [for rest].
"He lays that white eye on them, and that's it," Hennig said. Personal Hope's right eye has a white ring around it, usually the mark of a horse with a nasty temperament.
Whether or not Personal Hope can relax well enough to be effective after battling other Preakness speed horses, such as Cherokee Run, Koluctoo Jimmy Al and El Bakan, remains to be seen.
"He doesn't seem to be worn out after his tough race in the Derby," Hennig said. "He's eating everything in sight and still seems fresh. I watched him in his stall this morning and he was having a good time, hiding behind his hay net and then trying to bite other horses as they went by."
Hennig seems to be as relaxed as his horse.
Only once, Hennig said, has the pressure of his first Triple Crown gotten to him. "I was fine during the running of the Derby. For three to five seconds at the top of the stretch, I had the thrill of a lifetime when I thought we might win it. But then it didn't really bother me after we lost.But all of sudden, as I was going down the stairs from the seats to the track, I got cramps in my stomach. It must have been all of that tension building up."
But the anxiety attack was short-lived, he said. By the time he got down to inspect Personal Hope after the race, Hennig was fine.