Ask Dan Hendricks the hardest part about his Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) experience, and he doesn't hesitate with his answer.
"Dealing with the media," says the trainer of Brother Derek. "We're set. We've come in; we've won four in row. The horse is healthy; he's here. Now, it's just doing all the Derby stuff. It's fun, but that's the hardest part, really."
Hendricks is attracting a lot of attention at Churchill Downs because Brother Derek is a top Derby contender. But the trainer also is one of the race's most compelling stories because he is paralyzed from the waist because of a motocross accident. The questions about Hendricks' injury and the motorized wheelchair he uses to get around are inevitable. And he must answer them over and over again.
"It's part of coming to the Derby, and I would rather be here than not answering the questions," Hendricks says. "It's just part of it. It gets a little monotonous, the same questions, but I understand where everybody is coming from. They've got their own paper to write for and their own way they want to put it. It's just part of it."
Hendrick, who lives in California, was injured in July of 2004.
"Motocross is a dangerous sport," he says. "You're jumping jumps and landing, (going) 10 to 20 feet in the air. You wear full protective gear. But if you land wrong, something happens, and this is what happens. I just went over a jump that there wasn't enough momentum to carry me over it. If there were 10 jumps on that one track, it was probably the smallest. I landed wrong where I hit straight down on the ground. And when I did, I couldn't roll to lessen the fall. I just hit wrong, and that's all; it just happened. It's not something that's rare in the sport either. It's something that's happened to quite a few guys. It's something I just never thought would happen to me. I raced as a kid all my life and never had a broken bone. You know how you feel like you're not susceptible to injury? And then it happens."
Hendricks never feared for his life, but he knew immediately that he faced major changes as a result of the accident.
"I never felt like it was life-threatening," he said. "It was more like it was -- I don't know how to put it -- more like life-screwing-up. I just knew right away I had messed up and life was going to be different from then on. It was like anyone that gets paralyzed. You can't explain it. It's hard to explain."
But it's clear that the results of the accident are something that Hendricks must deal with daily.
"It's like with horses, when you make a mistake going into a race," he says. "I look back and say, 'Why did I go riding that day? Why me?' I've asked myself all those questions. But I did it to myself, it happened, and here I am, so I can't dwell on it. I have before, and it doesn't help me. I figured that out.
"After sitting six weeks in a hospital not doing much of anything, you get a little more, I don't know, patient and mellow about things. Put in this situation, I do look at things differently, but not whole lot differently. The importance of a horse race compared to fighting in Iraq, it puts things in their place."
Hendricks remains a motocross fan.
"I still love it," he says. "I watch it on TV. I don't hold anything against the sport, and I don't hold anything against motorcycle riding. If it had happened on a horse -- exercising horses is something that I did for 30 years -- or in a car, I wouldn't hold anything against the car or the horse."
Even though he has to answer lots of questions about the accident and his wheelchair, Hendricks is still finding his Derby experience pleasurable.
"I'm enjoying it," he says. "This is what it's all about. If you don't enjoy this, you shouldn't come, because this is it."