By Bill Finley
Since he ran his first horse in 1994, Eddie Barker's routine has never changed. Every day, he gets up at an ungodly hour and heads to his work, which is his barn on the NYRA backstretch. The reward has been some winners here and there, but never more than 23 in a single year and not one of them a graded stakes winner. The GI Kentucky Derby? It's a race he watches on television.
In a sport dominated by the likes of the Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, Steve Asmussen mega-stables, the Eddie Barkers of the profession don't get many chances to show what they can do if ever getting their hands on a quality horse. But that may change this year. In New York-bred Shipsational (Midshipman), the runner-up in the GIII Sam F. Davis S. last Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs, the 76-year-old veteran trainer has a horse who can hold his own in graded company and appears to be a legitimate threat for the Derby. Barker has been waiting his entire career for such a horse.
“A guy like myself, we don't get that many horses that come along with the ability to run the kind of numbers you need to get into the Derby,” Barker said. “It makes all that getting up every morning at three o'clock over the last 30 years worth it.”
Barker became a trainer by accident. He had a feed store and a customer was unable to pay the bills. In order to satisfy the debt, Barker was offered a mare in foal. He accepted and rather than hiring a trainer, he decided to do it himself.
He won five races his first year and 17 over the first three years. His numbers would improve some in subsequent years, but he was having to make do mostly with claimers and horses he would pluck out of the sales for $15,000, $20,000. Along the way, he never lost confidence in his own abilities.
“It's a challenge, I can tell you that,” he said. “You're trying to compete against guys who get access to the best horses in the world. Where I have one, they have 25 or 30. You have to believe in your horse and you have to believe in yourself.”
Barker said it's only become harder over the years for the “little guy” to compete. When he started, a trainer in New York was limited to about 35 stalls. Today, a trainer might have 80 at Belmont, 50 at Saratoga and another division at a place like Monmouth.
“Sometimes you were fortunate enough to get some horses that the larger stables couldn't take,” he said. “With a little personal care and attention they did very well. That does not happen anymore.”
An obvious problem for Barker, who has a 17-horse stable, was that none of his owners had particularly deep pockets. That changed somewhat when Iris Smith decided to give Barker a chance. While she was never going to spend $1 million at the sales for a horse, she did have the means to pay in the low six figures.
With Smith's backing, Barker headed to the 2021 OBS March sale and fell in love with a Midshipman colt bred by Mr. and Mrs. Bertram Firestone.
“We picked (Shipsational) out off his breeze,” he said. “He looked so efficient and had such a long stride on him. His gallop-out was sensational. The other plus was he was a New York-bred. We thought we could get him for $150,000, but I don't think I would have left the sale without him. He really impressed me.”
Shipsational, who sold for $210,000, broke his maiden in his first start, drawing off to win by 6 3/4 lengths. After finishing fourth in the Funny Cide S., he won the Bertram Bongard S. and the Sleepy Hollow S. to conclude his 2-year-old year. All of his 2-year-old starts came against New York-breds.
Some trainers may have kept Shipsational in New York to face statebred company, but Barker wasn't about to miss out on the chance to test his colt against top open company to see if he had a Derby horse. He shipped Shipsational to Tampa and circled the Sam F. Davis on his calendar.
“These horses don't come around that often. I was going to take a shot,” he said.
Shipsational was clearly second-best in the Sam F. Davis, losing by 3 3/4 lengths to top Derby hopeful Classic Causeway (Giant's Causeway). But Barker said he did not have the horse ready for his best effort and estimated that he was about 80% fit.
“I kind of thought he was a Derby horse, but he had to answer a lot of questions,” Barker said. “Could he run around two turns? He had been running against New York-breds. Could he run against open stakes company? He answered all of my questions and I feel that he's going to go forward off this race. He got a lot out of it.”
There will be more questions to answer when Shipsational returns for the GII Tampa Bay Derby on March 12, where he's scheduled to have a rematch with Classic Causeway. Barker will have a lot of people rooting for him, all those trainers who have kept plugging away without ever getting a break or an opportunity to show what they can do with a good horse.
“Even if I come in 10th in the Derby it would be a victory for the little guy,” Barker said. “I'm getting close to the end of my career. I would like to see some of the smaller trainers around New York and around the country get a better shot. They are all doing the same thing. They work hard, are there early in the morning, they put their time in and have a modest amount of success. You put a good horse in their hands they will do just as well as Todd Pletcher or Chad Brown or anyone else. They just need a chance.”
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