Updated on 09/16/2011 8:31AM

The hard work behind the fast colt


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - They are the unsung heroes, the ones who rise before dawn to sweat and grunt and worry, all to minimal fanfare. They are the support team - four men and one woman - who have been most instrumental in the day-to-day care of War Emblem, who on Saturday at Belmont Park will bid to become the 12th Triple Crown winner.

Their boss, trainer Bob Baffert, is quick to credit his staff: assistant trainer John Good, exercise riders Mick Jenner and Dana Barnes, groom Roberto Luna, and hotwalker Raul Urtiz. All but Barnes, who flies in from California for workouts, are based at Churchill Downs.

"Everybody knows their job and what they have to get done," Baffert said. "They deserve a lot of credit for helping me get this horse to this point."

Listen to Baffert talk long enough about the Triple Crown, and the conversation invariably touches on War Emblem's more high-profile connections: owner Prince Ahmed Salman; Richard Mulhall, who manages The Thoroughbred Corp. for the prince; and jockey Victor Espinoza.

But behind the scenes, there are others who have filled important roles, such as Doug Berry, the colt's Churchill veterinarian, and Steve Norman, his farrier. And then there are the assistants who have lent an indirect hand by overseeing Baffert's sizable California strings during his lengthy absences: Tim Yakteen at Hollywood Park and Jim Barnes at Santa Anita.

None, however, has spent more quality time with War Emblem since the prince bought him in mid-April than Dana Barnes, a California-based exercise rider who has been aboard the colt for every workout since Baffert assumed his training, and the four men who report for work daily at Churchill. All of them made the trip to New York with War Emblem except for Good, who had to stay in Kentucky.

They all look to Baffert as their unquestioned leader. They share his passion for success and his sense of awe about what may transpire Saturday in the 134th Belmont Stakes.

John Good

Assistant trainer

Age: 23, Birthplace: Dublin, Ireland

Good left school in Ireland when he was 15 to work full time with horses. He worked nearly three years for legendary trainer Dermot Weld, primarily as a gallop boy. But, he "couldn't further myself," he said, and left for California.

He worked for trainer Neil Drysdale for a short stint before joining Yakteen's Hollywood Park crew as an exercise rider and stable foreman soon after Real Quiet won the 1998 Kentucky Derby. "Did the hard grind in Yakistan," joked Good. He moved over to Santa Anita in the fall of 2000 and was promoted to Churchill assistant in April 2001.

Good said his first impression of War Emblem in April was that the colt "was okay to look at, but no stunner. But Bob said he thought he was nice, so that was enough for me."

Good, astride his pony, Cisco, accompanies War Emblem to and from the track and through the first half-mile of his daily gallop. War Emblem, he said, "is very aggressive, a very forward-thinking horse. He's not crazy, but you've got to watch yourself. He tries to take a little nip once in a while."

Dana Barnes

Workout rider

Age: 38, Birthplace: Los Angeles

Barnes long has been Baffert's go-to rider for important workouts, regardless of where either of them happen to be. While astride her mount, she carries a walkie-talkie in her back pocket to talk to Baffert, even during the workout.

Baffert said he uses Barnes in lieu of Jenner or other exercise riders because "there is no better work rider in the world. She's light, has great hands, and she knows exactly what I want to get accomplished."

Barnes, who has been married to Jim Barnes for nearly 17 years (they have two children), lives and works in California but flies regularly to the site of important workouts. Barnes is a former jockey who rode sparingly in Southern California for about three years in the late 1990's; she has been working for Baffert for more than five years.

War Emblem, she said, "is awesome. He seems to thrive on all of it."

Mick Jenner

Exercise rider

Age: 33, Birthplace: Lemgo, Germany

A quick-witted, outgoing sort who grew up in Europe as the son of a British soldier, Jenner moved to the United States in 1988. He was part of the Baffert crew in its infancy, galloping such horses as 1992 Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Thirty Slews and other stars. Jenner, a confessed golfing nut, has lived mostly in Louisville since 1991.

Jenner tacks about 145 pounds in the mornings, and his size gives him more strength than the average jockey. War Emblem is fitted for his daily gallops with a lip cord, a confining piece of equipment that gives Jenner considerably more control, and he has been able to mold War Emblem into a relatively obedient, professional soldier.

"He's done nothing but improve," said Jenner. "When we first got him, I felt he was a decent enough horse. Then as he improved, I thought, 'This isn't just a Derby horse, but one who can compete.' By race day, I really started getting stupid, thinking, 'Man, he can't get beat.' "

Jenner said a key to War Emblem's success has been his fluidity of motion. "There's absolutely no wasted effort," he said. "Everything he does, it takes a minimum amount out of him."

Roberto Luna


Age: 33, Birthplace: Colima, Mexico

Several days after the Kentucky Derby, Luna was giving War Emblem a bath when the colt - true to his reputation - began to misbehave.

Luna did not hesitate to reach back with his boot-covered toe and drill War Emblem squarely in the barrel with a swift kick. "Th-h-h-hwunk!" Then he did it again. And again.

Apparently satisfied he had the colt's full attention, Luna resumed his daily chore, cleansing every inch of War Emblem's dark bay body. The scenario was characteristic of the no-nonsense approach Luna brings to his job every day.

Since migrating to the U.S. more than 14 years ago, Luna has had just one job: groom for Bob Baffert, even during Baffert's Quarter Horse days. Although War Emblem is the first Kentucky Derby winner he has groomed, he has been the groom for stars Point Given, Silverbulletday, and Cavonnier.

Luna, who speaks very little English, "is extremely dedicated," said Good. "He's here all the time, every day. He's brought a certain amount of discipline to the colt that I think has been really good for him. I think he's turned the horse around. Roberto has handled a lot of aggressive horses, and he makes them hold to his line of respect."

Baffert said that he does not allow mistreatment of horses, but that Luna, who is about 6 feet tall and weighs about 170 pounds, "is big and strong. Nobody's really allowed to be rough on these horses . . . but [Luna is] a disciplinarian."

Raul Urtiz


Age: 41, Birthplace: Jalisco, Mexico

Urtiz began working with Quarter Horses in Mexico about five years ago, then came to the United States to work at Los Alamitos in California for trainer Jaime Gomez. He joined Baffert less than a year ago when Luna, his friend, recommended him.

When War Emblem is being tacked up, or being given a bath, Urtiz works with Luna because, said Good, "it's a two-man job." Otherwise, Urtiz's main duty with War Emblem is to walk him around the shed row for 30 minutes or so after the colt has trained.