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Barba can't help looking back
ELMONT, N.Y. - The color scheme of the tack owned by trainer Alexis Barba is deep purple and white, and much of the tack at her stable back in Southern California still bear the initials "EJG." Every day, Barba sees reminders of her mentor, trainer Eddie Gregson, but in recent weeks, they have been piling up.
Barba had never run a horse in the Kentucky Derby until four weeks ago, when Make Music for Me finished fourth in the bulky field of 20. That race took place on May 1, exactly 28 years to the day since Barba sat in a tack room at Hollywood Park, entrusted as the one to hold down the fort back home, and yelled her lungs hoarse as Gato Del Sol rallied from behind to win the Derby for Gregson.
This week, for the first time in her life, Barba is at Belmont Park, where on Saturday she will send out Make Music for Me in the 142nd Belmont Stakes. The race will take place exactly 10 years to the day since Barba, having stayed up all night, made sure to arrive at the barn long before the other stable help, feeling it was her responsibility, her duty, to make sure they found out from her that their beloved boss - Edwin Janss Gregson - had killed himself the previous night.
"I didn't want somebody else to tell them," Barba recalled this week at Belmont Park. "It was a long night."
Work with someone you know and respect for 20 years, grow to admire everything about them, advance to be their top assistant, and then have them taken from your midst, at their own hand, well, there's plenty of unfinished business to go around. No chance to say goodbye. It can be one big blur.
"It's hard not to think about," Barba said. "It seems like it was just yesterday, not like 10 years have passed."
In that decade, Barba, 58, raised her son, George, who is now 21, and continued on in a business that many of her best friends from the early days in the Gregson barn left. Mark McCreary, Gregson's former top assistant, became an accountant. Nina Kaiser, an exercise rider, became a celebrated equine artist, her work including the magnificent bronze of John Henry at Santa Anita. Linda Smithwick, Gato Del Sol's exercise rider, now works at a farm in Northern California, teaching young horses their early lessons. Barba is still in touch with them. But she is the only one still at the racetrack, training nine runners.
With such a small barn, opportunities to run in Triple Crown races are rare. Barba almost got there two years ago, with Victory Pete, but he was injured the day before the Arkansas Derby, his final scheduled prep for the Kentucky Derby, and missed the Triple Crown. Amazingly, Barba had two horses earlier this year with Derby aspirations. Alphie's Bet fell short after disappointing in the Santa Anita Derby. But Make Music for Me made it.
"That was pretty emotional, walking over with the horse," Barba said. "It was hard to keep your head up and not fall in the mud."
After viewing the twin spires at Churchill Downs, this week Barba has taken Manhattan. On Tuesday, she visited the Empire State Building for a photo shoot arranged by the New York Racing Association to drum up interest in the Belmont Stakes. Should Make Music for Me win on Saturday, Barba would become the first female to train the winner of a Triple Crown race. Shelley Riley came closest, finishing second in the 1992 Derby with Casual Lies.
"It would definitely be historical," Barba said.
And it would complete a long and winding road that began in the most improbable way. Barba was first exposed to horses when growing up in the Oakland hills. Her riding horses were stabled at the same facility where Charles Finley, the mercurial owner of the Oakland A's baseball team, kept the team's mascot, the mule Charlie-O.
"Those were the Reggie Jackson and Joe Rudi days," Barba said. She got a job riding Charlie-O at A's home games, and in local parades. "I was the keeper of the mule," she said.
Barba then got a job as an exercise rider at Golden Gate Fields for trainer Jack Utley, "the first guy I ran into there," she said.
"He was an old curmudgeon," Barba said. "He was a good horseman. He was so kind to his horses, compared to the way he treated people."
She matriculated to Southern California, and worked for Bill Spawr and Tommy Doyle before landing a job as an exercise rider with Gregson in 1981.
"He was a gentleman," Barba said. "He never yelled. If a groom would get a phone call, he wouldn't yell down the shed row for them. He would politely walk down the shed row and hand them the phone. He wanted every groom to have a computer on the backstretch. He was so patient with horses. If a horse had a little niggling problem, he'd turn them out. He did so much for everybody."
And he touched Barba's life in one final, serendipitous way. Gregson trained horses for years for Teresa McWilliams, whose sister, Anna, went to college with Gregson. McWilliams deals in high-end real estate near Santa Barbara, Calif., and in the mid-1990s, she did business, and then became friends, with Peter and Ellen Johnson, residents of Madison, Wis., who were looking to buy a second home as they neared retirement. When Peter Johnson sold Tetrionics Corp., a pharmaceutical drug manufacturer, in 2004, he decided to dabble in the horse business. McWilliams had kept her horses with Barba after Gregson's death, so Johnson followed her lead.
In partnership with McWilliams, the Johnsons own Alphie's Bet, who won the Sham Stakes earlier this year. And on their own, they purchased Make Music for Me at a 2-year-old in training sale last year for $95,000. Though he has won just once in nine starts, Make Music for Me has finished second in the Best Pal Stakes and Del Mar Futurity, and third in the CashCall Futurity, all won by subsequent Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky. The Johnsons also campaign Victory Pete, now 5, who is scheduled to run this weekend at Hollywood Park.
"I must say it has been a very enjoyable relationship with Alexis," said Peter Johnson, 72. "I've been in start-up businesses, and taken over businesses when they are sick. This is a very different business. In the horse business, everybody is out for themselves, is my observation. Theresa had known Eddie for 30-some years, so she had a connection with Alexis.
"We've been very, very lucky. With the success we've had with a limited amount of horses, somebody is on our side."
Alexis Barba has a pretty good idea who that is.