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Trainer Jason Barkley off to Fast Start
Credit: Coady Photography

Trainer Jason Barkley off to Fast Start

HENDERSON, KY – Jason Barkley, in his third full season of training horses and off to a fast start at Ellis Park, has been around the track since he could walk.

“He always wanted to do something, was always into something trying to help out,” said his dad, veteran trainer Jeff Barkley. “I’d say he was 5 or 6 when he could start doing a few things, I don’t care if it was raking the shedrow or mixing feed.

“Of course, he was always small. Well, my feed barrel was kind of tall and he was reaching down in the feed barrel to get the feed out and dump it into the feed tub. One day, I was doing some horses up and I hear this, ‘Help! Help!’ He’d reached into the barrel and fell into it. That’s how small he was when he was helping.”

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Young Jason remained undaunted and now is barreling along in his lifelong ambition of training horses after starting out with one horse in 2017 at Ellis Park.

The 31-year-old Barkley — who grew up in Evansville and now is based in Louisville at Churchill Downs’ Trackside Training Center — has won 3 of 10 starts, with a second and a third, at the RUNHAPPY Summer Meet at Ellis Park. That puts him in a tie for second with Ron Moquett for the early lead in the trainer standings. Dane Kobiskie tops all trainers with 5 wins heading into Friday’s racing.

“It’s tough,” Barkley said of building a stable from scratch. “Some guys, they take a big string when they start; maybe they worked for somebody a long time. Other guys, such as myself, you build it up as you go. I started with one, then we got to five, that turned into 12 and then 28. You just kind of put yourself out there, talk to as many people as you can, make as many contacts as you can, try to take advantage of being at the races and seeing owners, meet different people. You can only sell yourself so much with your words, but what you can do on the track, that’s what they want to see.”

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Jason Barkley is a fourth-generation horseman from the Tri-State area, graduating from Evansville Central. He clearly was predisposed genetically to become a trainer, not only on his father’s side, but through his mother, Sandy. Her mother, Marcella Byers, was the first female trainer to be licensed in Louisiana and married fellow trainer Jack Byers, while Sandy’s grandmother Blanche Koring was one of the first women to be licensed as a trainer in Kentucky, Jeff said of his in-laws. Jeff’s father, Bill Barkley, owned and trained horses, acquiring his first racehorse when his son was 10.

Jason worked for his dad until enrolling in the University of Louisville’s Equine Industry Program in the College of Business, spending his summers working at Churchill Downs for trainers such as Steve Margolis, Paul McGee and Wayne Catalano, along with Nick Zito after graduation. He subsequently worked as an assistant trainer to Wesley Ward and Joe Sharp.

Barkley said wanted to learn from trainers with different styles.

“Wesley was heavily on the babies,” he said. “So I wanted to learn that whole routine. With Joe, it was a little bit of everything. He had the good horses, we had claiming horses, we had babies. You learn how to manage a big stable, not only the horses but the people and everything that goes with it. That was a big benefit to me, from growing up on a smaller track with 10-15 horses.”

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Jeff Barkley also was a major influence.

“A lot of the bigger barns, guys will get into a routine. Maybe everything gallops a mile and a half, things like that,” his son said. “But working for Dad, you learned that they are different. If you treat them differently and play to their strengths, in the end it will pan out better for you.”

One thing Jason didn’t pick up from his dad was the desire to ultimately have a 100-horse stable.

“He didn’t learn that from me,” Jeff said with a laugh. “He’s got a whole lot different perspective. I guess the most I ever had at one time was 28. That’s what he’s at now. More power to him, especially if they’re runners. But he’s got the ‘want to’ and the drive to do it.”

Jason last year switched from stabling at Ellis Park in the summer to staying in Louisville. But he enjoys returning home to run horses — all the better when they win.

“Obviously we don’t have the fans there, but Dad’s there, Mom’s there,” he said. “You don’t get to go home much in this business; you travel so much. So to go home and see everybody, that’s nice. You grow up somewhere, and to be able to go back and win, that’s a lot of fun.”

“He’s off to a good start,” Jeff said, adding jokingly, “Puts pressure on me to keep up. He’s got more horses than I’ve got, and I can’t keep up. Then of course we ran against each other here one day, and he beat me. I’m still hearing about that – not from him but from other people. The other day our buddy Billy Stinson won the first race. Jason won the second. We could have had the Pick 3 but I blew it. I ran second. I’ve been hearing about that since then, too.”

Jason and Shelbi with recent winner Olson (Credit: Jennie Rees)

In another game-changer, Barkley’s girlfriend, Shelbi Kurtz, gave birth to their baby girl, Aria Leigh, 11 months ago. Kurtz remains heavily involved in the stable as assistant trainer and exercise rider.

“Everybody seems to make it work,” Barkley said of having a family with horse racing’s time-intensive, seven-day work week, even on days when the barn doesn’t have a horse running. “I get done (training) in the mornings. Before having a family, you’d pour into your condition books and your training chart, getting ready for the next day.

“Now you take time during the day to do other things, then your night’s become a lot longer. Because you start pouring into your condition books about 7 at night instead of noon. It adds a little more to your day, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

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