She has taken on some of the greatest racehorses of all times, all over the world; from the sand in the early morning light at Santa Anita to the florescent illumination of Meydan Park in Dubai. Her small frame supporting her quiet hands, she proves gender is irrelevant in the Sport of Kings, as she calms and quiets even the wildest of the bunch. She’s typically not the subject of the photos of her, it’s the four legged beasts beneath her that are being captured, but nonetheless you can’t help but notice her soft expression; happy and relaxed atop 1100 lbs of muscle.
Dana Barnes, long time exercise rider for Bob Baffert, is most at home in the saddle, perched atop raw heart, power,and speed, “I like to go fast,” she says ” I always have.” To Dana, the horses she rides are not the horse the rest of us sees: they’re not just the top rated horse in the world, they’re not just the Kentucky Derby winners, they’re not just the horses that are doted on around the world, they’re the horses Dana knows and loves like her own. She has a different relationship with them, and remembers them for their personalities, their quirks, and what made them special to her.
Most of the time, these days, Dana is being photographed atop Arrogate – a horse that needs absolutely no introduction. While people admire the colt’s demeanor Dana chuckles, reminiscing of the days of Arrogate old.
“When he ran at Los Alamitos for his first race he completely washed out,” Dana recalls. “He was a lunatic in the paddock, he got away from the pony, he didn’t break – I mean, it was a disaster.”
But then Arrogate developed a slight fever, a blessing in disguise, which allowed Dana to take him back to square one and do what she does best. With Bob and Dana’s husband (and Bob’s Assistant) Jimmy in Kentucky, Dana took the time to bond with the wild colt, slow down, and take him back to the basics. “The way he is now? He’s a crack up!” says the one woman who knows him better than almost anyone else in the world.
Arrogate’s greatness is often described in terms of his gait – his enormous stride that covers ground like no other horse. To Dana, it’s something she knows well: “He’s the most unbelievable moving horse ever. No horse has ever moved the way Arrogate moves.”
There are only a handful of people who would know that feeling besides Dana, and jockey Mike Smith is one of them: “He’s got a huge stride, but it’s like it’s downhill,” Mike says, ” he covers so much ground and he gets over the ground so pretty. He puts his head down a little bit so it can look awkward, but when your on him he feels amazing.”
It’s a stride that has captured numerous titles and hearts, but for Dana it’s a feeling that she knows on a different level, it’s one that has transformed from out of control and discombobulated to precise and daunting. It’s one she has felt mature beneath her.
What makes Arrogate special to Dana is in his feet, but her favorite horse captured her heart because of what was going on between his ears.
Before Silver Charm made a name for himself, Dana knew all about the other great grey horse in her life from their time together in morning works. “He was always so cool,” she says of her old friend. “He was the smartest horse I’ve ever been on.” She vividly remembers a moment after the Kentucky Derby when she and Silver Charm were on the track and Dana heard some onlookers recognize her horse and start to applaud him. Dana recalls Silver Charm morphing beneath her, puffing up, and changing his jog to a prance; “he would work for the people around him; he knew he was really special,” she recalls.
Dana met Silver Charm around the same time she met Bob. She had been working for Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Wittingham at the time, whose barn connected to Baffert’s. Bob still lived in Longbeach back then, and would make the trek to the track daily – which meant his barn was usually the last to make it out to work. Dana would finish with Charlie’s horses and walk over to ride for Bob – where she has happily stayed ever since.
“I’ve been so lucky – I’ve worked for some of the best trainers. It never occurred to me that I never actually asked for a job, almost every job I’ve ever had they’ve asked me because I’m small and I can work with horses.”
It’s something that comes so natural to Dana who’s been working with racehorses since she was 16 years old. It started at Old English Rancho where Dana learned to exercise race horses. “I owe them a lot because I learned a lot there….[they] really, really taught me a lot,” Dana says of the farm where she spent her summers, immersed in the racing world she had always longed to be a part of her.
But before Old English Rancho, Bob Baffert or Charlie, Dana Barnes was just a little girl in a small horse town in love with horses. “I rode my pony like most kids rode a bicycle,” Dana recalls. Her horse was her means of transportation from the time she was five years old, whether she was going to the local store, a friends house, or down to the river in the summers to cool off. To Dana Barnes, the horses she rides aren’t just the superstars we all know and love, they are her passion, her life, and what she has always known. Her ability to calm even the wildest ride has earned her the respect and admiration of the people in the industry that understand the ripple effect of what she does.
From Arrogate to Silver Charm, and all the horses in between, it isn’t about the names or the accolades of the horses Dana rides, ” I get so attached to them,” she says, “and I just love the horses.” So it makes sense that the woman responsible for wrangling 1100 lbs of raw energy would feel right at home, it’s where she always has.
Like this? You should definitely check out: