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
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
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
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
”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
”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
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
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,”