By BRUCE SCHREINER, Associated Press
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — 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."