Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Barkley Lets ‘Quirky’ Spooky Channel Be Himself

Just a week before Halloween, a horse named “Spooky Channel” carried orange-and-black silks to the post at Keeneland. Hunch bettors who were paying attention could have been paid at 7-1 in last weekend’s Grade 3 Sycamore Stakes.

Jason Barkley didn’t even consider that connection until days after the 6-year-old son of English Channel delivered him the first graded stakes victory of his career. The trainer was too busy planning for the next step.

“I’m kind of an action junkie,” Barkley admitted. “I just love the racing, the handicapping, the figuring out the puzzle. The handicapping side is so much of how it plays out on the track, and you have to have a tactical plan for what is going to happen in the race.” 

That puzzle was part of what led Barkley to claim Spooky Channel for $80,000 on April 30, 2021, a bold gamble that has definitely paid off in just his fourth year of running his own stable.

“We liked his consistency and with the purse structures what they are, there will be plenty of opportunities for him,” said Barkley. “He just tries. You don’t win 11 races by mistake, I don’t care where you’re at. It’s evident to everyone that he likes what he does. He’s kind of a quirky dude, but we just accept that and do what works for him. We just treat them all as individuals: get ’em happy, keep ’em happy!”

That philosophy is part of the reason Spooky Channel has a large stuffed unicorn that travels with him to his races.

“He doesn’t really play with it, but if you take it away, he’s not happy,” Barkley said. “He’s just a little nervous. He’ll stand at the front of the stall and weave a bit, looking for the action, so we also built him a window into the stall next to him, and that’s helped him settle down, too.”

Working with and accepting each horse’s different quirks has helped the 32-year-old grow his operation: Barkley began with a one-horse string at the end of 2017, and now has 35 head under his care. 

It’s where Barkley always envisioned himself, but as with all best-laid plans, the path to that goal was anything but linear. 

He grew up around Ellis Park, a third-generation trainer who helped his father on the weekends and after school. Barkley’s logo, a triangle, pays homage to that history.

His parents insisted he pursue a college degree, if only to have a backup plan in case training Thoroughbreds didn’t pan out, so Barkley attended the University of Louisville’s Equine Industry Program. He intended to use the program primarily as a networking opportunity — having grown up at a smaller track, he didn’t know the right people to advance his career.

That program is where Barkley met his mentor Tim Capps, a longtime horse racing executive and head of the EIP until his death in 2017.

“He wasn’t Mr. Capps, or Professor Capps, just ‘Capps,’” Barkley recalled. “If I’d have done exactly what he told me to do, I’d be training harness horses! You know, because they run every week. 

“Whenever you’d walk by his office, you could just go in and talk to him. You’d meet whoever else was in there, talk for like an hour, at least. He was always willing to help, and he had great stories, some clean, some not clean. It was refreshing to go from being a high school kid, who had teachers who were just teachers, to a guy who not only wanted to help you succeed but also could answer any question you had, or could find the answer.

“He introduced me around, and always kind of helped steer me in the right direction. That’s what I remember about college the most.”

Barkley spent summers hotwalking at Churchill Downs, gaining experience with bigger stables for the first time, and got a job as a foreman after graduation. He wanted to travel to other racetracks, too, so when the opportunity came to work for Nick Zito, Barkley jumped at the chance.

A year of working for the Hall of Famer, while invaluable, took its toll.

“When you’re young, you want to work at the track, but then you do it and there’s no free time,” said Barkley. “I’d never had a job that was seven days a week, 365 days a year, and I guess I got a little burnt.”

Spooky Channel with his favorite stuffed unicorn

The young horseman had a girlfriend in New Hampshire at the time, so he moved there and took a job with SmarkPak, then at a casino. It didn’t take long for Barkley to realize the racetrack was where he belonged.

“After a year I decided I didn’t want a normal life; I wanted a racetrack life,” Barkley said.

He learned that Joe Sharp needed an assistant trainer, and decided to learn about the claiming part of the business while he could. From there, an opportunity with Wesley Ward sparked his interest in learning more about developing young horses.

“My whole plan all along – when you grow up on the racetrack, you know a lot – but I wanted to learn from a lot of people,” said Barkley. “The issues that claiming horses have compared to the issues that babies have are so vastly different, so it was nice to have that experience.”

At the end of 2017, an owner offered Barkley the chance to claim one horse and open his own stable.

“I took the leap,” Barkley said, laughing.

The young trainer figured the best claiming opportunities could be had at Oaklawn Park, so he wintered there, coming home to Kentucky in the spring with six horses. Barkley has grown his stable from there, a “slow grind,” but one with a steady upward trajectory.

Each year he’s sent out a few more winners than the year before: he went 1-for-12 in 2017, then won 11 races in 2018, 15 in 2019, and last year had his picture taken 22 times. With two months to go in 2021, Barkley has saddled 20 winners for earnings of $718,685.

Also growing over the past four years has been his family. He and his fiancee, who also serves as his assistant trainer, have a young daughter, so Barkley has had to learn to balance work with a bit of free time.

“When I’m home I try not to work unless my daughter is taking a nap, or after she goes to bed, like 8pm to 11pm at night,” Barkley said. “I try not to take away from the free time with her. It’s a little bit of a lack of sleep right now, but I’m still only 32 so I guess I can manage on that right now! You’re just trying to have a life as you go, and I wouldn’t trade it.”

The post Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Barkley Lets ‘Quirky’ Spooky Channel Be Himself appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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