LOUISVILLE — For a frail little girl and a soon-to-be-famous trainer, it was a love of horses that brought them together. They wound up sharing the ride of a lifetime, basking together in a Kentucky Derby victory.
Next up is a reunion at the Preakness.
Doug O'Neill and Hope Hudson met on the backside at Churchill Downs during the hectic days leading up to last week's Derby.
O'Neill was prepping the colt I'll Have Another for the race. Hope, a 12-year-old from Missouri who is battling a rare disease, was getting her first up-close look at the sleek Thoroughbreds she loves, thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Three days later, Hope and her family were part of the victory celebration when I'll Have Another became the first winner from the No. 19 post position in 138 runnings of the Derby. The chestnut colt, a 15-1 shot, was ridden by rookie jockey Mario Gutierrez.
The bond between O'Neill and the spunky girl formed quickly as they chatted about horses. He shared his Derby triumph with Hope. He called the family to the stage at the post-Derby news conference and exclaimed to the girl, "We're going to the Preakness, baby."
Later, Hope and her family joined the trainer at a victory party. The next day, Hope spent time with I'll Have Another.
"They're part of the team; they're part of the family," O'Neill said during a telephone interview this week.
Now Hope's family has accepted an invitation from O'Neill's team to watch I'll Have Another try to win the second leg of the Triple Crown. Hope will be at the Preakness on May 19 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
When told that the reunion was set, Hope squealed, laughed and then teared up, said her mother, Jennifer Hudson.
"You couldn't wipe the smile off of her face the rest of the evening," she said.
In a sport built on power and speed, and one that lures a stable of celebrities to America's most famous horse race, it was a 56-pound girl in a wheelchair who turned heads on the backside during the fast-paced Derby week at the Louisville racetrack.
Hope was diagnosed in October with Hajdu-Cheney Syndrome, a rare connective tissue disorder, her mother said. Connective tissue is strong fibrous tissue that supports and joins other body tissues and parts. The ailment can lead to abnormal development of bones and joints, and a decrease in bone mass and changes in the skull and jawbone.
Jennifer Hudson said her daughter was becoming weaker and relying more on her wheelchair. Hope has spells when she loses feeling in her limbs for hours at a time.
"Her prognosis all depends on her body; there is no cure for HCS so we continue to treat the symptoms," Jennifer Hudson said.
It was the latest in a series of ailments that included a heart defect that resulted in surgery when Hope was 10 months old. She was born blind in her right eye, and had a corrective lens implanted in 2009. The family lives in Perryville, Mo., about 90 miles south of St. Louis.
When given a chance for a wish to come true thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Kentucky Derby was a natural destination for a girl who collects Breyer horses, draws pictures of horses, watches horse races on TV and once dreamed of being a jockey.
Days before the race, she got an insider's peek at preparations for the big race.
Escorted by Case Clay, president of Three Chimneys Farm near Midway, Hope met a who's who of horse racing notables during her backside visit, including trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Graham Motion, and jockey Calvin Borel, on May 2, the Wednesday before the Derby.
"They just dropped what they were doing and it was all about this little girl," Clay said.
But it was O'Neill who topped them all. He gently hoisted Hope atop Lava Man, a retired stakes star who earned $5.2 million with seven Grade 1 victories. The 11-year-old gelding has a new career escorting O'Neill's current runners to the track to train and race.
"Have you ever sat on $5 million before?" O'Neill asked.
The girl beamed as the horse stood still. She gave a thumbs-up and patted the horse. O'Neill adjusted her riding helmet.
"She looked like a natural," he said later. "Just great balance. She sat right in the middle of the saddle."
Hours earlier, her family had worried if she had enough strength to make the rounds at Churchill.
"They took a girl who was feeling so bad. That was pretty much the thrill of the day right there," her father said.
Asked later what was going through her mind as she sat atop the former champion, Hope replied, "Holy Cow."
She had been on horses at her aunt and uncle's place, but that was before her health took a turn for the worse.
"My heart was pounding through my chest," her father, Nathan Hudson, said later. "I didn't know exactly what the horse was going to do. But he was a complete champ. I think he enjoyed it as much as she did."
Later in the week, Hope and her parents and younger sister toured horse farms, visited the jockeys' room at Churchill before the Kentucky Oaks and met Kendall Hansen, owner of his namesake Derby colt Hansen, for dinner. She collected autographs and photographs. One prized keepsake was a horseshoe worn by Hansen when the white colt won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November at Churchill Downs.
"I gave her one of my final two shoes that Hansen wore" in the race, said Kendall Hansen, who called Hope "a super fan and a sweet girl."
Hansen was her favorite horse heading into the Derby, and Hope couldn't be swayed, even when chatting with a trio of trainers who had their own Derby entries — Lukas, Motion and O'Neill.
"She didn't care about that, she stuck to her guns," Clay said. "All the trainers respected her convictions."
Each evening, Hope and her family spent time chatting with O'Neill and his team. Finally, Hope told O'Neill that if Hansen was out of contention, she'd switch her allegiance to his colt. And that's how it played out as the seventh-grader cheered on I'll Have Another.
Now home in Missouri, the family is still soaking in the storybook relationship with O'Neill and his team.
"It's amazing how he just kind of took me under his wing," Hope said.