Jimmy Barnes is anxious to get back to his work.
It is the morning of May 24 and the venerable assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert still has a full slate of duties ahead of him. He has legs that need to be checked. He has a set list to make. He has the latest standout runner in the barn to watch over and make sure everything in the colt's world remains as close to perfect as he is.
But first Barnes has to press pause on his routine to satisfy the media outside of Churchill Downs' Barn 33. The pack wants the latest details on unbeaten dual classic winner Justify, who just returned to the track for the first time since he put himself in position to make a little history with his victory in the May 19 Preakness Stakes (G1). Even as he dutifully answers every query—including the ones he had already answered the day before, and the day before that—you can almost see the multitasking wheels spinning behind his sunglass-shielded eyes.
His weight shifts back and forth and his thumbs fumble with the belt loops on his jeans. He is used to such obligations, a byproduct of nearly 20 years of helping Baffert develop one brilliant performer after another, but it is clearly not his comfort zone. It is only once the daily scrum wraps up and he can turn his focus back to his four-legged disciples that his energy noticeably settles. Because if there is anywhere Barnes is most in his element, it's when he is actively reinforcing his reputation as one of the best right-hand men in the Thoroughbred industry.
"I've joked about that thing where people say, 'If it was me or Bob hanging off of a cliff, who would you save?' And I've never asked that question, because I think it might really be Bob," laughed Dana Barnes, longtime exercise rider for Baffert, and even longer-time wife of Jimmy. "Jimmy really has dedicated his life to that barn."
If a few moments away from his duties sparks some edginess in Barnes, just imagine his level of fitfulness in September, as he laid in a hospital bed post-surgery for the pelvic fracture and internal bleeding he suffered in a freak accident at Santa Anita Park. The man who never took days off was looking at weeks on the sideline and even longer before he could think about getting back on a horse. And that—physical pain notwithstanding—was a real source of torment for the native of Santa Rosa, Calif.
For all the indelible images the Baffert barn has been responsible for producing the last couple decades, the sight of Barnes astride a diligent pony keeping tabs on the shedrow's litany of runners has become as much a signature part of the operation as his boss's ivory-colored hair. On the morning of Sept. 17, that cornerstone was suddenly rocked, when the pony Barnes was riding lost its footing, unseated the lifelong horseman, and caused a level of injury that was far more severe than initially indicated.
Barnes was first transported to Arcadia Methodist Hospital, where the first reports Dana received were that her husband appeared to have dodged a serious situation. A couple hours in, however, a check of his blood pressure told otherwise, and he was subsequently transferred to Huntington Memorial Hospital, where it was discovered he had been bleeding internally, in addition to his fracture.
"The worst part was, first they took him to Arcadia Methodist and ... they didn't take an X-ray. They said they thought he was going to be OK," Dana said. "The lady walks in and goes, 'How are you doing?' and he says, 'I feel like I'm going to die.' And they took his blood pressure, and it was extremely low, and they freaked out. So, by the time I got there, he had called me and left me a message: 'My blood pressure dropped and they're transporting me to Huntington,' because the last I had heard was he was fine.
"By the time he got to Huntington, they gave him all kinds of blood transfusions and he was much better. We were really lucky ending up at Huntington, and we had an excellent doctor there. But it was pretty scary for a little while."
There are backbones to success, and then there is the standing Barnes holds within the Baffert shedrow.
Since he joined the legendary conditioner's team in late 1998, Barnes' horsemanship has earned him massive respect as one who is as unflappable during times of strife as he integral to the development of such honor-roll graduates like Point Given, Lookin At Lucky , and Midnight Lute . Just as Baffert is hailed for his ability to spot intangibles in equine athletes, Barnes has become an extension of the Hall of Fame trainer's eyes, ears, and philosophy, able to identify what's right and what's not with their charges, even if the shifts are borderline imperceptible.
He is also always, always front and center on the ground floor, traveling across the country with shippers and handing the lion's share of the less-than-glamorous minutia. So when Baffert arrived at Barnes' bedside, one of the first orders of business was coming up with a way to keep his top assistant connected to day-to-day happenings at the barn.
"When I landed I went to see him, and he's laying there, and he says, 'Man, I feel like I let you down.' That's the way Jimmy is," Baffert said. "He makes my job so much easier, because I have to concentrate on all these things—where are they going to run, dealing with the ownership, buying horses—and so when he's back here with the horses, I don't have to worry about it. He knows what he has to do. He knows the way I think. We've been through so many situations. He knows, 'This is what we have to do.'
"We've got cameras, so when he was in the hospital, he was watching the horses and he still was involved. He can't get away. He would text me like, 'Hey, I'm watching you guys.'"
The input by proxy worked for Barnes—for about three weeks. With the Breeders' Cup at Del Mar looming in November, the last thing he had time for was a forced bit of time off. Hence, less than a month after his surgery, he and his crutches were back at the barn, where he could lay eyes on matters himself.
As he healed, Barnes got an opportunity to branch out. He couldn't get back in the saddle yet, but he could get more involved in clocking the barn's runners and evaluating their workouts from a different perspective.
"I was on crutches, but I was at the barn, and I was basically just dispatching," Barnes said. "I was on the radio telling Bob when the workers were coming out, doing a lot of phone calls and that type of work. Then I slowly worked my way back out to the racetrack. (The doctors) said just take it easy, and if you feel comfortable doing something, go ahead. And if not, you might have to back off. But there was no backing off. It was full steam ahead."
And speaking of perspective, there is nothing like having one's forcibly adjusted after decades of the status quo.
"For him that is the only time he had ever taken any time off—more than a day off," Dana said. "And it was ... really good for him to kind of actually get bored and get a little antsy, because he'd never done that before in his whole life—just to sit back and not be able to do anything."
From American Pharoah to Arrogate to Abel Tasman to West Coast, the on-deck circle in the Baffert barn is rarely without a fire-breathing talent begging to be honed. Sure enough, just as Barnes was rounding back into form, up popped a big, chestnut baby who required the operation's attention.
It has taken some level of training wizardry to get Justify to go from maiden winner to Triple Crown hopeful in a span of just more than 90 days. Since the son of Scat Daddy debuted in February, he has defied the conventions of what a colt, unraced as a juvenile, is supposed to be able to achieve. He kicked the "Curse of Apollo" to the curb by capturing the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) May 5 in sublime fashion and then held strong in the Preakness to set himself up to become just the 13th horse to sweep the American classics when he starts in the June 9 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1).
In order to get Justify to this point, Baffert has needed every tool in his arsenal. For the past two decades, his not-so-secret weapon has been his straightforward assistant who thrives off of keeping every ball in the air with precision.
"Nobody knows how great our horses are, other than Jimmy and I. And we've had some great ones," Baffert said. "So we know how to compare our horses, and if we feel like we have a great horse, he's a great horse. I don't need a number or a speed figure or whatever. Pharoah, Arrogate, and this guy, they're off-the-charts kind of horses."
Barnes estimates it took him about six months to feel 100% recovered from his injuries, and those casually observing would be hard pressed to know there was ever a ding in the armor. He is back on a pony again. He is back to hustling to every corner of the barn like a man on a mission.
He is back to handling anything and everything in his path, and not ever wanting to have it any other way.
"Coming off that injury, and then taking this ride with a horse like Justify, is just over the top, and I couldn't be happier to do it," Barnes said. "It puts a bounce in your step, because you're laying there laid up and you don't know what the prognosis is. Things like, 'Will you be on horseback again?'—because I have always been a hands-on type of assistant. But it feels good to be back out there on horseback again with this horse."