If you are looking for Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another at this year's Breeders' Cup, you won't find him. Nor will you find Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags or other popular Triple Crown runners like Bodemeister and Hansen. This Saturday, depending on their schedules, they will all be bedded down in their stalls or turned out in paddocks enjoying retirement.
However, another name that made headlines this Triple Crown season will be at Santa Anita, and it is someone everyone can cheer for.
She smiled in the pictures, but she was so pale. I don't even know how to explain how she made it through the Triple Crown.
”-- Jennifer Hudson, Hope's mother
It all started when Hope Hudson wished to go to the Kentucky Derby. The horse-crazy 13-year-old has Hajdu-Cheney Syndrome, a rare connective tissue disorder. The Make-A-Wish Foundation made her dream come true, but an instant bond with trainer Doug O'Neill turned that wish into an enduring friendship.
When O'Neill's charge I'll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby at odds of 15-1, Hope and her family were invited to go along for the ride as the colt made a run at the Triple Crown. As a result, Hope's story was told through multiple media outlets.
Fast forward a few months. The O'Neill barn invited Hope, her parents Nathan and Jennifer, and her younger sister to Santa Anita for the Breeders' Cup. The family originally declined but were planning on coming for the Santa Anita Derby next spring.
"We were going to wait until April because we had exhausted our vacation time pretty much at work," explained Jennifer Hudson. "But then, I got home one night, and Nathan told me Doug called. That wasn't uncommon since we talk to him quite a bit still. He told us [racing manager] Steve [Rothblum] had won a poker tournament and one of the prizes was box seats at the Breeders' Cup. Coming from Steve, he said he went into Doug's office and said 'Call Nathan.' When Nathan told me that, it was like, 'Well, we are going.'"
So on Thursday night, the Hudson family headed from their hometown of Perryville, Mo., about 90 miles south of St. Louis, to Santa Anita. It will be the first time any of them have attended a Breeders' Cup. Needless to say, Hope is pretty excited, but maybe not for the immediate reason you might guess.
"She was squealing and clapping when we told her," said her mom. "She was super excited. But her main thing was she kept saying, 'I get to see Uncle Doug!'"
As it turns out, medically speaking it is stunning that Hope was able to put up with the rigors of the Triple Crown at all. Right when she was supposed to leave to have her wish granted, she took a turn for the worse.
"The actual day of the backside tour at the Derby, she was sick as a dog," Hudson said. "She smiled in the pictures, but she was so pale. I don't even know how to explain how she made it through the Triple Crown. It was her own little miracle that we did make it through."
Tests were done, and although it was unclear exactly what the problem was, this summer Hope's neurosurgeon decided to go in and shave some bone down to alleviate pressure and give Hope's brain stem more room. Everyone hoped this surgery would work so they wouldn't have to contemplate what has been deemed "the surgery of last resort," in which they would actually have to split her palate to get into the part of the brain they would need to reach.
Upon starting the surgery, the neurosurgeon discovered that Hope's dura mater (the tough, fibrous membrane covering the brain and the spinal cord and lining the inner surface of the skull) was leaking.
"He went ahead [and] did what he was going to do, and he also fixed that leak," Hudson said. "She went in on a Wednesday, and she came home on Saturday. That is how well everything went."
Two days after she returned home from her surgery, Hope had a special visitor. O'Neill took the red-eye into St. Louis and drove to Perryville to spend the day with the family.
"She is a totally different kid now," said her mom with a smile. "She has been going to physical therapy and occupational therapy, and she has gotten quite a bit of her endurance back. She is still a little weak on the left side, but she can walk farther now before she gets too tired. I am not going to say she runs around the house, but she be-bops around the house like a normal 13-year-old should, fast mouth and all. We got it all now."
Of course, O'Neill is not the only one who has gone out of his way to help keep Hope's spirits up.
She is a totally different kid now. She has been going to physical therapy and occupational therapy, and she has gotten quite a bit of her endurance back.
”-- Jennifer Hudson, Hope's mother
"We have had so many people help us," Hudson said. "I think one of the greatest moments, though, and I wasn't there for it, was when Nathan, Hope and my in-laws went to the Iowa Derby with Dr. Hansen. My in-laws had no clue about the exceptional treatment we had gotten through all of this, so they were just beside themselves."
Dr. Kendall Hansen is the owner of 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Hansen, who treated Hope and her family to a dominant victory in the Iowa Derby.
"They were down in the paddock, and my mother-in-law kept asking if it was OK that they were there. Ramon Dominguez comes out, sees Hope, and he comes over running. He was talking to her, and my mother-in-law was just staring. The jockeys have also been great. Little things like that moment with Ramon make Hope feel so good."
Not surprisingly, Hope and her family will be cheering for O'Neill's horses in the Breeders' Cup this year. He has seven of them running over the course of the two days. While O'Neill has had his share of controversy, if anyone wondered whether the I'll Have Another camp's treatment of Hope and her family was a publicity stunt, it would appear they were mistaken. Sometimes people instantly click, and in this case it happened between a very sick girl and a well-known racing stable.
"I still can't really put my finger on it," Hudson said. "A lot of the trainers came out and talked to us, but Doug just went that extra little bit. I can't explain the connection that they have, or actually Hope's connection with all of the guys out there. They are great people. I don't even know how to put it in words."
Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.