As the Kentucky Downs meet was winding down this week, so, too, was Jason Barkley’s stable.
“I’ve got three more runners,” Barkley said last weekend. “I think it’s just time to try something else.”
But not before what could be the pinnacle of a training career that he is leaving. Barkley, 34, hopes to saddle 8-year-old millionaire Spooky Channel in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita.
“He’s made plenty of money,” Barkley said the day after Spooky Channel came from off the pace on a speed-favoring course to finish second in the Grade 2 Kentucky Turf Cup. “I think he gets in. He’s a Grade 2 winner this year and Grade 1 placed and a Grade 2 place on top of that, too. I think he would get in on that.”
Hope springs eternal as it has since Barkley started training in 2015, diving in full time in the past six years. Even though his purse earnings have steadily risen, they have not kept up with expenses. That is the reality that forced him to make the difficult decision to close his stable.
It has been even more difficult for Barkley to make financial ends meet.
“It’s just getting real tough to do that,” he said. “As a trainer you lay out all the cash up front, and then you’re recovering 45-60 days later. You get an owner or two that gets behind, it gets harder and harder to keep your head above water. Somewhere along the line you’ve got to stop the bleeding. Really, the only way to stop the bleeding is just stop, unfortunately.”
Barkley’s is not an unfamiliar story. Kiaran McLaughlin may be the most prominent trainer who decided enough was enough, especially after he was hit with a federal fine of more than $300,000 for paying some of his workers less than the minimum wage.
“You try to do things right,” McLaughlin told BloodHorse in 2020, “but it is very expensive and difficult to make things work properly.”
Barkley said trainers were not the only ones who could relate to McLaughlin, who 3 1/2 years ago became jockey Luis Sáez’s agent.
“It’s just a tough game to make money in on every side of it,” he said. “Just on the trainer’s side, you’ve got to make decisions on what you want for your life. The work is seven days a week. As much as we do, to not really make a ton is just part of it.”
For Barkley it was not even a case of new expenses. Asked if the added cost of registering with the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority was a factor in reaching his tipping point, he said no.
“Nothing new,” he said. “It’s just been an uphill battle from the kick on the trainer’s side, and I’m third generation.”
A native of Evansville, Ind., whose professional home is across the state line at Ellis Park, Barkley is the son of Jeff Barkley and grandson of Bill Barkley, both trainers. His maternal grandmother Marcella Byers was the first woman to get a training license in Louisiana.
A graduate of the University of Louisville equine-industry program, Jason Barkley apprenticed for his father, Steve Margolis, Paul McGee, Wayne Catalano and Nick Zito before becoming a full-fledged assistant to Wesley Ward and Joe Sharp.
“I’ve seen it. I know how it ends up,” he Barkley said. “You owe people, then you pay people, and then you get out, you sell all your stuff, and then you’re happy.”
Barkley said he could have continued to knock around, tread the financial water and hope for another Spooky Channel or two to make it into his barn. In his case it was a matter of getting to the fork in the career road sooner than later.
“I’d rather quit at 34 than 54,” he said. “I’m 34 and college educated. There’s a lot of things I can do and a lot of people that are supporting the decision.”
Moreover, Barkley said he did not want to settle for substandard goals in his training.
“If I can’t do this at an elite level, I don’t want to do it,” he said. “You can build a job for yourself, or you can build a legacy, and I don’t really want to just build a job. If you’re not going to be one of the top guys, if you’re going to ham and egg it on the training side, it’s just not really worth it to me.”
Barkley did not mention Brad Cox or Steve Asmussen or Todd Pletcher or Chad Brown by name. However, he clearly had top-earning trainers like them in mind when he pictured casual fans looking at the most prominent human faces of horse racing and wondering why all of them were not getting rich.
“I think they see trainers who drive nice cars, that dress nice, they come to the races, they win races,” Barkley said. “At the end of the day, you might win a race that pops 150 (thousand dollars). The trainer gets $9,000, and that money is earmarked for something before the race even ran. You’re just happy that you won, but that’s really just not conducive to a really healthy lifestyle for anybody.”
Barkley said he was not sure what he would do next. He said he might try to work as an agent or explore the bloodstock side of the sport, and he will continue in his role as a trainer director with the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
Other than Spooky Channel, Barkley’s three remaining horses were entered for races early in the meet that just started at Churchill Downs. Lilms Constitution, a 2-year-old Constitution filly owned by Mag Racing, made her debut Saturday by finishing sixth in a maiden sprint. Master Switch, a 2-year-old Cloud Computing colt owned by Legion Racing, was entered in a maiden-claiming race Sunday. Indie Label will be a second-time starter Wednesday for the NBS Stable in maiden special-weight race.
Barkley said Lilms Constitution will be transferred to trainer Matt Shirer, Master Switch could be claimed, and Indie Label will follow his other NBS horses to Kelsey Danner.
That will leave Spooky Channel, the gelded son of English Channel who will have that hoped-for date in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita on Nov. 4.
“We’ll train up to it, get out there early and let him settle in, and we’ll have him sharp,” Barkley said.
Even before that punctuation mark on his training career, Barkley is focused on his family, especially 4-year-old daughter Aria.
“She starts school next year, so I’m just trying to get somewhere solid,” he said. “It’s hard to raise a family on the road, so I want to get that going. ... We’ll get her rolling in school, and I want to stay in one place. It’s just hard to do that.”
It is also hard for Barkley to say good-bye to the craft that was handed down from his father and grandparents. One thing he will not abandon is his affection for the game.
“It’s hard to walk away from,” he said.
Barkley also said, “I can always come back to it at some point. It’s always here. It’s not going anywhere.”