A sight that has never been seen before in the history of the Dubai World Cup sponsored by Emirates could unfold on Saturday night if American challenger Hoppertunity (USA) unleashes enough of his trademark closing kick to win the world’s richest race.
Helping to lead the five-year-old into the winner’s circle and posing with the gold trophy would be Dana Barnes, who not only would be the first woman to oversee the final preparations of a winner of the race but also would be collecting her second consecutive major trophy after directing Secret Circle to his victory in the 2015 Dubai Golden Shaheen sponsored by Gulf News.
“It’s going to be really hard to top last year but that would definitely be up there,” said Barnes, the quiet, unassuming but key member of American Racing Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s team, when pondering the possibility.
Not only has Barnes managed Hoppertunity’s training for the Dubai World Cup since the horse arrived in the UAE, she also has ridden him in his trackwork, just as she did with Secret Circle prior to his Golden Shaheen triumph last year.
Following Baffert’s brush with mortality when he suffered a heart attack while in Dubai for the 2012 Dubai World Cup, Barnes has become the stable’s mainstay when it comes to Dubai racing. Baffert has cut back his travel schedule and basically placed responsibility for the care of his horses once they travel to UAE in Barnes’ capable hands, giving her what he described as “carte blanche” to make decisions.
Barnes has worked for Baffert since 1996 and she and her husband and fellow assistant trainer, Jimmy, consider Baffert and his wife, Jill, and their children as part of their own family.
This remarkable team already has developed 1998 and 2001 Dubai World Cup winners Silver Charm and Captain Steve, as well as numerous champions including Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
Silver Charm is among many of the horses that Dana Barnes rode in trackwork for Baffert, and it is clear with so many years of working together and so much success that Baffert trusts her completely.
“Bob is not a micro-manager at all, especially with Jimmy and me. He has faith in us; he’s pretty cool about letting us do our thing with the horses,” said Barnes, adding that she is always thinking about how Baffert would handle a situation when she is making decisions.
Hoppertunity happens to be one of Barnes’s favourites from all the years she has worked with Baffert, and she praises the horse’s beautiful head and easy-going attitude.
“Everybody wants to ride him. If you could take a horse and show someone how a horse should gallop, this would be that horse—he bows his head and moves off so beautifully. He’s the kind of horse you want to ride every single day. You wish they would all be like this,” she said.
Owned by Karl Watson, Paul Weitman and Captain Steve’s owner Mike Pegram, Hoppertunity won the 2014 Clark Handicap, a Grade 1 race at Churchill Downs, and is coming off a victory in the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes last month.
He also has placed in five other Grade 1 events, including finishing second in the 2014 Santa Anita Derby won by Dubai World Cup favourite California Chrome (USA).
“He’s doing perfectly,” Barnes said of Hoppertunity’s preparation at Meydan. “Everything has gone smoothly. He’s as happy as can be.”
Hoppertunity’s attitude is in stark contrast with the personality of Secret Circle.
“You never knew what was going to happen when you would go out there with (Secret Circle),” she said. “It was his way or the highway. He was just so smart; he did what he wanted, when he wanted.”
Another positive about Hoppertunity is that he seems to perform at his best when he races over the Dubai World Cup distance of 2000m; many of the major racing opportunities in the United States are at 1800m, which is just a bit short for him.
Additionally, he has been in robust health for months, as opposed to earlier times in his career when he battled niggling injuries that kept him from building up consistency in training and racing, Barnes said.
“Now that he is older and more consistent, I’m hoping he can run his best race,” she added.
If Hoppertunity were to win the Dubai World Cup, Baffert will be the trainer of record but no one will be more aware of how much of a role Barnes has played.
“I was so proud of her, I was so happy for her,” he said after Secret Circle’s win.
While Baffert stays in constant contact, Barnes said he completely supports her how she handles the day-to-day activities with the horses in Dubai.
“He says, ‘As long as you’re happy, I’m happy’,” related Barnes, who is hoping that Hoppertunity will make them both very happy on Saturday evening.