Bob Holthus, a veteran Midwest trainer, died Tuesday, Nov. 22, of a heart attack at his Louisville home. Holthus, who had a string of horses at Churchill Downs, had been in ill health. He was 77.
Holthus, a Nebraska native who followed his father, Paul Holthus, into racing, was a major figure in the Midwest for several decades. Taking out his trainer’s license at 18, he won numerous training titles at Oaklawn Park and also topped the standings at Arlington Park, Detroit Race Course, Ellis Park, Hawthorne, Louisiana Downs, and Turfway Park. One of his two sons, Paul, helped the cause while serving as an assistant for a number of years before going out on his own.
“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, in a release. “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.”
Holthus, who owned Kilkerry Farm near Royal, Ark., up until a couple of years ago, conditioned about 90 stakes winners, including grade I winners Proper Reality and Pure Clan and numerous other graded winners including Lawyer Ron.
“Proper Reality gave my dad his biggest thrill in racing when he won the Met Mile,” said son Paul about Proper Reality’s score in the 1989 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) at Belmont Park over Seeking the Gold. “And winning the Arkansas Derby also was special.”
Proper Reality, owned by Jim and Juanita Winn of Arkansas, won the 1988 Arkansas Derby (gr. I) and finished fourth in that year’s Kentucky Derby (gr. I).
In 2006 Holthus won the Arkansas Derby (a grade II event that year) with Lawyer Ron. His trip along the Kentucky Derby trail that year was included in the documentary "First Saturday in May," and chronicled the close relationship between Holthus and jockey John McKee. Lawyer Ron finished a disappointing 12th in the Kentucky Derby.
During his career Holthus saddled a total of five Kentucky Derby starters.
Pure Clan provided Holthus with his last stakes win. A 4-year-old at the time, Pure Clan won the Flower Bowl Invitational Stakes (gr. IT) in October 2009. In her next start she ran second in the Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT).
“Pure Clan was a real finicky mare,” said Paul Holthus. “She had some training issues, and it took the some talented hands to get the best out of her.
“Dad’s training methods were simple,” he added. “He kept good care of his horse and tried to do the best he could with all of them. He didn’t look at it like it was rocket science."
According to Daily Racing Form, Holthus won 2,824 races from 19,674 starts, and his runners earned more than $46 million.
Holthus is a member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
In addition to Paul, Holthus is survived by his wife, Bonnie; a son, David; and a daughter, Debbie, who assisted her father with the horses.
There will be a ceremony at Christ Chapel on the backstretch at Churchill Downs Saturday, Nov. 26, at 10:30. There also will one opening weekend at Oaklawn Park.