08/21/2013 2:54PM

Jay Hovdey: The women behind the Pacific Classic powers


What’s about nine and a half feet tall, 190 pounds dripping wet, and strong enough to tame the inner, prehistoric beast of the most obnoxious Thoroughbred racehorse?

That would be Dana Barnes and Tammy Fox, one standing on the other’s shoulders, offering undeniable proof that quality comes in small packages, and that you can be a 48-year-old mother of two, as both are, and command respect as two of the best at what they do.

Their handiwork will be on display this Sunday at Del Mar when Dana’s Game On Dude tackles Tammy’s Dullahan in a rematch of last year’s Pacific Classic, in which Dullahan came on strong to catch Game On Dude and win by half a length.

Dullahan set a Del Mar Polytrack record that day for the Classic’s mile and a quarter with a clocking of 1:59.54. After two full days on the scene this week from his Kentucky base, all signs pointed toward the colt feeling right at home again on Sunday.

“You remember what Muhammad Ali used to say,” Fox said Wednesday outside Dullahan’s Del Mar stall. “ ‘Float like a butterfly.’ That’s what he was doing out there galloping.”

Fox, however, had to take another rider’s word for how Dullahan felt. For the first year and a half of his career they were inseparable in the morning, with Fox aboard for trainer – and her life partner – Dale Romans during both gallops and works. And what a year and a half it was, with a victory in the 2012 Blue Grass Stakes in addition to the Pacific Classic, a third in the Kentucky Derby, and a trip to the Middle East earlier this year for an appearance in the Dubai World Cup.

Dullahan emerged from his poor showing in Dubai with a temperature and did not go back into training at Churchill Downs until early June, by which time Fox was happy to have the leggy chestnut galloping again. Then the morning of June 11 happened.

“Coming off the racetrack I was almost at the barn,” Fox began. “I was on a young horse and he kind of propped on me. When he did that I kind of fell forward. But as I did, he bucked. I knew I was coming off, so I was thinking I’d jump and grab hold of him so he didn’t run anywhere. Well, that didn’t work out.”

Instead, Fox landed flat-footed on the concrete stable road, sat down, and watched the horse trot back to the Romans barn without her. The Code of the Backstretch requires a fallen rider to treat every injury as if it’s merely a flesh wound, so she calmly asked for her boot to be removed and “would someone please call an ambulance.”

She had fractured both the tibia and fibula of her left leg and dislocated her left ankle, damage that took seven screws and a plate to put back together again. If you’ve a mind, Fox can show you the X-rays on her iPhone.

“This was the worst I was ever hurt,” said Fox, who competed as a jockey off and on for 23 years before hanging up the white pants for good in 2005. She won 236 races.

“I even came through a head-on collision training one morning where both horses were killed,” she added. “But this was all my fault. I just wasn’t paying attention. I’ve just now gone back to jogging horses back home in Kentucky – the horse I came off of was the first one I rode back – but I didn’t feel like the foot was quite strong enough yet to be galloping Dullahan out here. So I’m doing something I’ve never done before, just being on the ground.”

Dana Barnes, wife of Bob Baffert’s senior assistant Jim Barnes, was similarly grounded in a freakish accident three summers ago at Del Mar. A former jockey, Barnes has handled just about every star in the Baffert firmament since the days of Silver Charm and Real Quiet, on through War Emblem and Point Given, to the more recent eras of Lookin At Lucky and Game On Dude.

“It was just such a freakish thing,” Barnes recalled. “The horse was kind of pumped up walking, he was going out to work. When I went to get a leg up he lunged forward, so I landed back behind the saddle. As I went to jump off he kicked out and got me in the right leg.”

The fractures required several screws and a rod, inserted from knee to ankle. She was on the sidelines for three and a half months. While she recovered, Game On Dude was also out of action, having ended his 3-year-old season with a respectable fourth in the 2010 Belmont Stakes. When Barnes returned she was greeted by the 4-year-old version of Game On Dude, who proceeded to win 12 of his next 20 starts, including his last five in a row.

“He acts more like a baby now than he did as a 3-year-old,” Barnes said. “He plays and bucks. He never did that until the last year or so. He just gets better every year. Makes you wish a lot of the horses would stay around until they’re six years old, because it seems they get so much better. More confident.”

Barnes allows Game On Dude to stand on the track and survey his kingdom before commencing a gallop. He also demands tribute, a piece of candy, either from a kindly clocker in the shed at the Santa Anita gap or from a supply in Barnes’s pocket. Once in action, he makes few mistakes.

“The first day I got on him as a 3-year-old he was super nice,” Barnes said. “The second day he fell down. We were just backing up jogging when he kind of laid his head down and rolled over. But he’s never done anything like that again, not even a stumble.”

Fox concedes that Dullahan might be facing a tougher version of the Game On Dude they beat last summer.

“He’ll need to step up his game,” she said with a nod toward the colt.

As for Barnes, Game On Dude has become one of those rare Thoroughbreds from which the sun and the tides appear to take their cue.

“He always shows up,” she said. “And every race he seems to get better and better.”