Like many racetrack lifers, Dana Barnes was in the saddle not long after she could walk. She grew up in rural Norco, California, a little town so horse-centric "the McDonald's has a hitching post.'' She was on horseback at 2. "I rode my pony like other kids ride a bicycle,'' she said, "but I always wanted to be on racehorses.''
At 16 she galloped them at a local training center and at 18 she hit the racetrack. About a year later, she met Jimmy Barnes while both were galloping at Golden Gate Fields, near San Francisco. Jimmy grew up mucking stalls and riding his dad's horses at Santa Rosa's fairgrounds.
They married in 1985, and trainer Jimmy, 55, and Dana, 51, maintain a stable relationship at home and on trainer Bob Baffert's team. The Barneses will be at the barn next week after Triple Crown contender American Pharoah arrives at Belmont Park on Tuesday, four days before the Belmont Stakes.
After Pharoah dominated the Preakness, Baffert saluted his indispensable power couple. "Jimmy and Dana are a big part of our program,'' Baffert said. "They've been with me for years, and we've won all these big races. We have a system and it works. They're family to me and we have a great relationship.
"Jimmy is so competitive and loves showing up for the big races. An owner thinks Jimmy is in more win pictures than anybody because he goes on the road.''
So does Dana, who in March went by herself to Dubai with sprinter Secret Circle, who won the $2-million Golden Shaheen. "Dana is great,'' Baffert said. "I was so proud of her. She knows the drill, and she loves to spoil those animals. It keeps them relaxed and levelheaded.''
She exercised his three colts who fell short of a Triple Crown at Belmont -- Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002). She joined Baffert early in 1997, and in 1999 Jimmy became his assistant. "I got him the job,'' Dana said, laughing, Sunday morning outside Baffert's Barn 33 at Churchill Downs.
Unlike her workaholic husband, Dana looks forward to her one day off a week. "Since he's been with Bob,'' she said, "I think he's taken maybe four days off.'' Her devotion to duty is remarkable, too. She left for three months after their first child, Jenee, was born 27 years ago. After daughter Jordan, now 22, arrived, Mom was back in the saddle a month later. "I already had a good baby-sitter by then.''
She said she and Jimmy rarely talk shop at home but kid each other at work. In a recent photo, Jimmy gives the "V for victory" sign, and Dana said, "You look like Richard Nixon.'' When she said Baffert "probably will run something'' in a stakes, Jimmy said, "Hey, don't be telling people things like that.''
Georgie Alvarez is American Pharoah's exercise rider while Dana partners Dortmund, who was 6-for-6 before finishing third in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Preakness. Dana loves hanging out with Baffert's latest superstar, whom she speaks of like the son she never had.
"Pharoah is the sweetest horse I've ever been around,'' she said. "Most really good horses can get pretty rough. They're colts, they're like puppies, and they bite. People take pictures of him and say how nice he is. I tell them, 'You have no idea.' "
Pharoah keeping busy. American Pharoah galloped 1 1/4 miles Monday on a sloppy track. Baffert planned to arrive last night in Louisville, and drf.com reported Pharoah might have a timed workout Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on the weather.