Frail girl meets trainer before Ky. Derby win

For a frail little girl and a soon-to-be-famous trainer, it was

a love of horses that brought them together. They wound up sharing

the ride of a lifetime, basking together in a Kentucky Derby

victory that defied history.

Next up is a reunion at the Preakness.

Doug O’Neill and Hope Hudson met on the backside at Churchill

Downs during the hectic days leading up to the Derby.

O’Neill was prepping the colt I’ll Have Another for the race.

Hope, a 12-year-old from Missouri who is battling a rare disease,

was getting her first up-close look at the sleek thoroughbreds she

loves, thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Three days later, Hope and her family were part of the victory

celebration when I’ll Have Another became the first winner from the

No. 19 post position in 138 runnings of the Derby. The chestnut

colt, a 15-1 shot, was ridden by rookie jockey Mario Gutierrez.

The bond between O’Neill and the spunky girl formed quickly as

they chatted about horses. He shared his Derby triumph with Hope.

He called the family to the stage at the post-Derby press

conference and exclaimed to the girl, ”We’re going to the

Preakness, baby.”

Later, Hope and her family joined the trainer at a victory

party. The next day, Hope spent time with the winning horse.

”They’re part of the team; they’re part of the family,”

O’Neill said in a telephone interview this week.

Now Hope’s family has accepted an invitation from O’Neill’s team

to watch I’ll Have Another try to win the second leg of the Triple

Crown. Hope will be part of the team at the Preakness on May 19 at

Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

When told that the reunion was set, Hope squealed, laughed and

then teared up, said her mother, Jennifer Hudson.

”You couldn’t wipe the smile off of her face the rest of the

evening,” the mom said.

In a sport built on power and speed, and one that lures a stable

of celebrities to America’s most famous horse race, it was a

56-pound girl in a wheelchair who turned heads on the backside

during the fast-paced Derby week at the Louisville racetrack.

Hope was diagnosed last October with Hajdu-Cheney Syndrome, a

rare connective tissue disorder, her mother said. Connective tissue

is strong fibrous tissue that supports and joins other body tissues

and parts. The ailment can lead to abnormal development of bones,

joints, as well as a decrease in bone mass and changes in the skull

and jawbone.

Jennifer Hudson said her daughter is becoming weaker and relying

more on her wheelchair. Hope has spells when she loses feeling in

her limbs for hours at a time.

”Her prognosis all depends on her body; there is no cure for

HCS so we continue to treat the symptoms,” she said.

It was the latest in a series of ailments that included a heart

defect that resulted in surgery when Hope was 10 months old. She

was born blind in her right eye, and had a corrective lens

implanted in 2009. The family lives in Perryville, Mo., about 90

miles south of St. Louis.

When given a chance for a wish to come true thanks to the

Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Kentucky Derby was a natural

destination for a girl who collects Breyer horses, draws pictures

of horses, watches horse races on TV and once dreamed of being a

jockey.

Days before the race, she got an insider’s peak at preparations

for the big race.

Escorted by Case Clay, president of Three Chimneys Farm near

Midway, Ky., Hope met a Who’s Who of horse racing notables during

her backside visit Wednesday – including trainers D. Wayne Lukas

and Graham Motion and jockey Calvin Borel.

”They just dropped what they were doing and it was all about

this little girl,” Clay said.

But it was O’Neill who topped them all. He gently hoisted Hope

atop Lava Man, a retired stakes star who earned $5.2 million with

seven Grade 1 victories. The 11-year-old gelding has a new career

escorting O’Neill’s current runners to the track to train and

race.

”Have you ever sat on $5 million before?” O’Neill asked.

The girl beamed as the horse stood still. She gave a thumbs-up

and patted the horse. O’Neill adjusted her riding helmet.

”She looked like a natural,” he said later. ”Just great

balance. She sat right in the middle of the saddle.”

Hours earlier, her family had worried if she had enough strength

to make the rounds at Churchill.

”They took a girl who was feeling so bad. That was pretty much

the thrill of the day right there,” her father said.

Asked later what was going through her mind as she sat atop the

former champion, she replied, ”Holy Cow.”

Hope had been on horses at her aunt and uncle’s place, but that

was before her health took a turn for the worse.

”My heart was pounding through my chest,” her father, Nathan

Hudson, confessed later. ”I didn’t know exactly what the horse was

going to do. But he was a complete champ. I think he enjoyed it as

much as she did.”

Later in the week, Hope and her parents and younger sister

toured horse farms, visited the jockeys’ room at Churchill before

the Kentucky Oaks and met Kendall Hansen, owner of his namesake

Derby colt Hansen, for dinner. She collected autographs and

photographs. One prized keepsake was a horseshoe worn by Hansen

when the white colt won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November at

Churchill Downs.

”I gave her one of my final two shoes that Hansen wore” in the

race, said Kendall Hansen, who called Hope ”a super fan and a

sweet girl.”

Hansen was her favorite horse heading into the Derby, and she

couldn’t be swayed, even when chatting with a trio of trainers who

had their own Derby entries – Lukas, Motion and O’Neill.

”She didn’t care about that, she stuck to her guns,” Clay

said. ”All the trainers respected her convictions.”

Each evening, Hope and her family spent time chatting with

O’Neill and his team. Finally, Hope told O’Neill that if Hansen was

out of contention, she’d switch her allegiance to his colt. And

that’s how it played out as the seventh-grader cheered on I’ll Have

Another.

Now back home in Missouri, the family is still soaking in the

storybook relationship with O’Neill and his team.

”It’s amazing how he just kind of took me under his wing,”

Hope said

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