Atop a bay colt Dana Barnes sits with the iconic twin spires of Churchill Downs before her. Media surrounds the track, cameras and notepads in hand as they observe the contenders for the 140th running of America’s signature race – the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). The colt Barnes is aboard, Hoppertunity, is among those hopefuls.
This certainly is not the first time Barnes has been in this situation. Having been an exercise rider for Bob Baffert since 1997, she has ridden each of the Hall of Fame trainer’s three Derby winners – Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and War Emblem. Since Barnes began working for Baffert, the trainer has had twenty-one Kentucky Derby starters.
“Having a Derby horse is every owner, trainer, groom, and exercise rider’s dream,” Barnes said. “We have been so lucky to have been here so many times. There's nothing like the Derby. This next week will get really crazy. We have fourteen horses here so we keep busy. We don't have time to get nervous. The first time I came, I thought I would never have chance to come back. It's pretty overwhelming.”
A career as an exercise rider was the perfect choice for Barnes, who grew up around show horses and began riding her first pony when she was just two years old. At age sixteen, she started galloping racehorses at a training center near her house. She has not looked back since. Working for Baffert, she has had the opportunity to work with multiple classic winners and champions.
“All the good horses we've had are special,” Barnes stated. “It's funny; they just have this way about them. It's hard to explain. I guess they just know that they are good. I think that's what makes the difference in all athletes; they have a level of confidence. You have to know you’re great to be great.”
One of Barnes’ favorite aspects of her job is meeting the new two-year-olds when they arrive at the barn, as the potential of those young prospects becoming champions is as thrilling of a chance as there is. When Hoppertunity arrived in Baffert’s barn as a two-year-old, expectations were high. Out of the graded stakes-placed mare Refugee, Hoppertunity is a half-brother to Executiveprivilege, who had won a pair of grade ones for the same connections as Hoppertunity: trainer Bob Baffert and owners Mike Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman. Barnes, who was also the regular rider for Executiveprivilege, immediately took a liking to Hoppertunity.
“[I’ve] loved him from the first day,” Barnes said. “He was a little green - that's why he gallops with a shadow roll – but so smooth. He's a beautiful mover. Compared to Executiveprivilege, he's happier, more playful, but colts usually are. They both are real powerful movers. He's sweeter. She would rather be left alone. He loves lots of attention – and carrots, he loves his carrots. He is a dream horse to ride and to be around.”
|Hoppertunity and Dana Barnes|
Photo courtesy of Mary Ellet
Since debuting in January of this year, Hoppertunity has raced five times, winning twice. Among those wins was a determined victory in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II), in which the son of Any Given Saturday survived a rough stretch run and a steward’s inquiry to be crowned the winner. This race allowed Hoppertunity to display qualities that will be to his advantage this weekend.
“Hopper’s got so much class,” Barnes stated. “Nothing bothers him. He can get bumped and banged around; in a 20-horse field, that's important.”
In his most recent start, Hoppertunity was a clear second to likely Kentucky Derby favorite California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). Since arriving at Churchill Downs on April 21, Hoppertunity has recorded a pair of works over the track surface in preparation for the Run for the Roses.
“Hopper is doing great,” Barnes said. “[I] couldn’t be happier with him.”
Barnes has been here before, and on numerous occasions. She knows the thrill of victory, and she knows the bitter taste of defeat. She was there for the exhilarating triumphs of Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and War Emblem. She was there for the disappointing losses endured by the likes of Captain Steve, Lookin at Lucky, and Point Given. Losing is part of the game, but everyone knows that few feelings are sweeter than victory – especially when that victory comes in the form of a garland of red roses on the first Saturday in May. But results aside, it is the hard work and the journey that matter in the end.
“I fell in love with [Hoppertunity] from the first time I got on him,” Barnes said. “He has never been the favorite in any of his races. I had to promise Bob he wouldn't let us down in the Rebel. He ran his heart out, so win or lose, he's a champion to me.”