ELMONT, N.Y. (WDRB) — When there’s a Triple Crown hopeful in the Bob Baffert barn, it’s a little like this: Baffert comes and goes. Jimmy Barnes is forever.

The longtime assistant trainer is always there, on the ground, on his pony, on the radio, on the phone. He was even there on crutches during the Breeders’

Cup last year, after taking a spill from his horse and breaking his pelvis in September.

He’s been there since 1999, and his wife Dana has been there even longer, as an exercise rider for Baffert since 1997.

When Baffert had a heart attack in Dubai in 2012, Barnes was there to take up the reins and kept the operation going.

When Barnes was sidelined last fall, it wasn’t for long.

“I went (to the hospital) to see him and he’s laying there, and he says, ‘Man, I feel like I let you down,’” Baffert said. “That’s the way Jimmy is.”

If it seems like Barnes works all the time, it’s only because he is. Up and to the barn at 4:30. Leave around noon. Come back later in the afternoon. Or, on a race day, stay all day sometimes. He travels, New Mexico to California to Arkansas to Kentucky to wherever.

And with Justify, like American Pharoah, Barnes is a near-constant presence, serving as Baffert’s eyes, ears, hands and heartbeat when Baffert is away with the rest of his operation.

His experience with high-end horses and his knowledge of Baffert and his way of doing things is difficult to duplicate and its value is impossible to estimate.

“He makes my job so much easier,” Baffert said. “I’ve got to be concentrating on all these horses, where they’re going to run, dealing with the ownership, buying horses. So when he’s back here with the horse, I don’t have to worry about it. He knows what he has to do. He knows the way I think. I’m running a big operation in California, and we’ll talk, he’ll shoot me a text, ‘How do you want to handle this?’ We’ve been through so many situations that he knows, ‘OK, this is what we have to do.’  He just knows. He’s been around these good horses. We’ve been around these good horses, and we’ve learned from these good horses.”

Baffert is often on such pins and needles during a Triple Crown chase that he cringes when he sees Barnes’ number pop up on his phone. The first words

Barnes has to say are, “Everything’s good.”

“My job,” Barnes said, “is to keep the horse happy.”

Barnes is constant motion. If there’s nothing to do around the barn, he’ll find something. You put a guy like that in a hospital bed and tell him he can’t do anything for six weeks, it doesn’t go over very well.

Last September, it didn’t. Barnes had to find a way to stay involved. From his convalescence in California, he monitored the Baffert stable via webcam video.
“It took me a solid six months until I really felt comfortable,” Barnes said. “. . . You’re laying there laid up, and not knowing what the prognosis is, whether you’ll ever be on horseback again, because I’ve always been a hands-on type of assistant.”

In the interim, Barnes began to take on other roles.

“He couldn’t stay away,” Baffert said. “. . . I went and bought him a really cherry golf cart, and I had it all tricked out for him, and we called him the electric horseman. He loves that cart.”

Taken off of his pony for a time, Baffert said Barnes got involved timing workouts, watching them with Baffert.

“I was ready to get back to the barn after a month, even on crutches,” Barnes said. “I was basically dispatching, telling Bob when the workers were coming out.

A lot of phone calls. And then slowly worked my way back to the racetrack.”

Once he got the clearance to try getting back on the pony, he jumped at the chance.

“They said just take it easy, and if you feel comfortable go ahead, and if not you might have to back off. But there was no backing off.”

Barnes has been in the game long enough to know that being involved with any Triple Crown contender is special. To be back in this position, three years after American Pharoah and just months after a serious injury, makes him even more grateful.

“Coming off that injury, then taking this ride with a horse like Justify, it’s just been over the top,” Barnes said. “I couldn’t be happier to do it. There’s a bounce in your step. . . . It feels good to be out there on horseback again with him.”

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