LOUISVILLE — Around 8:25 a.m. Thursday, the Derby favorite strode toward the gap that leads from the backside to the track. Spectators parted like the Red Sea to let him pass.
Dana Barnes allowed Lookin At Lucky to stop like a runway model and pose. Those wielding cameras, from disposables to iPhones to long-lenses that professionals carry, were thrilled.
Then Barnes, a 46-year-old wife and mother of two, took the Eclipse award-winning 3-year-old onto the track in the warm sunshine for a warmup of Bob Baffert's choosing.
Barnes has been an exercise rider for almost 30 years, many of those for Baffert, who calls her "fearless." She has helped put Derby roses on the necks of Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002), and helped hand the Preakness and Belmont trophies (2001) to Point Given.
And yet, she will get none of the glory when the names are called if Lookin At Lucky wins Saturday at the Kentucky Derby.
That is the job description. Get up on that fabulous horse for months; do as the trainer of that horse tells the rider to do; train that horse to change leads, gallop, sprint, save his speed, then run like his hair is on fire when it's time.
If the rider has done this right, the jockey should thank him or her profusely because his two minutes should be cake.
Still, most have no rancor.
"It takes a village to raise a horse," says Barnes. "People have no idea how many people it takes, from the day a horse like this is born. There's breaking and vets, so much. You know, one bad blacksmith could screw up and end a career. We all do our part. My job is to do mine and pass him along."
Walter Blum, who rides Noble's Promise this year for trainer Ken McPeek, exercised Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown for Rick Dutrow two years ago. He burns a little on the topic of who gets the credit for the win.
"We work 30 to 45 days to get this horse ready for this race, and they can win it or screw it up in two minutes," he says. "If they win it, they forget about the exercise rider and the groom. They understand what we do. But it's rare if they say anything about it when anybody's taking notes."
Make no mistake. Track observers know who's riding whom. Veteran Baffert-watcher Chuck Harper of Louisville, a horse owner who has Deputy Darling in a race on Oaks Day, explained to his son, Kyle, about Barnes' work ethic and about how Baffert rarely even puts a two-way radio on her because "she knows what's she doing."
'Like your children'
So the seasoned veterans know, but most who watch the Derby have no clue about exercise riders.
Here's what you should know. Barnes, for one, is highly compensated. And, she says, it's the perfect job for a mother because it's usually over by 9:30 a.m.
What you might not know is that come Saturday evening, if all has gone as it should overnight, Barnes will stand in the most hallowed of paddocks talking to Lucky. She will pat him softly and tell him that "it's alright" if he is a little nervous. She will tell him that he should do his best and that he's as good or better than anybody out there.
And, she says, "I'll still love you no matter what."
This is the intimacy, she says, that a lot of people, even race fans, don't understand. "No one is a bigger race fan than I am, but to watch them develop into who they are, that is what is great. It's why you love them. They are such smart animals and they do listen to you, so you have to talk."
Barnes says that when she takes to the trainer's box with Baffert on Saturday she probably will think of Lucky like she thought of those other champions: "These horses are like your children. You are just so proud of them."
Watching them run, in any race, she says, is like watching your child play in a Little League game. You cheer them on all the while thinking "What are you doing?" or "Are you OK?"
She laughs here and says the difference between the horses she's ridden and the two daughters — ages 22 and 17 — she's raised is "the horses don't talk back."
But she is the one person, besides the jockey, who will be aboard Saturday, who knows what it feels like to know that power.
"Every horse is different and each has his own personality and quirks," she says. "Colts tend to be ornery little boys. Fillies are more sensitive and patient."
Now, not all exercise riders think of their horses as their children and they still have a few rose garlands to their names.
The horse Andy Durnin had just taken for a turn around the Downs track, Make Music for Me, was as beautiful as any 3-year-old in the race but the last to be allowed to enter.
It is Durnin's third trip to the Derby. having won once with Fusiachi Pegasus (2000). "You wear the roses once, you want to do it again," he says in his Irish brogue. "It is the pinnacle of the game."
Durnin says he will be in the paddock Saturday "on the other side of the groom to grab the horse if he needs it."
Blum says horses have grooms to be their parents. Exercise riders, he says, are their teachers.
Blum, asked to characterize his own relationship with his horses, calls them his "best friends," then talked about how Noble's Promise is the guy you didn't want to be on the other side in a bar fight.
He laughed then said the exercise rider might be whoever the horse needs him to be to get the job done.