Earning Their Stripes: Jason Barkley

Last year, we conducted a popular Q and A series called ‘Smaller But Still Super,’ where we featured veteran trainers who have built a competitive racing stable with relatively small numbers (click here to view the archive). This year, we will highlight trainers who have already cut their teeth as novice trainers, but now have a few years of experience under their belt and are looking to make a name for themselves as they grow their stable. We’ll talk about the challenges that come with hanging out your single, advice for trainers setting out on their own, how the incoming class of young trainers differs from previous generations and more.

A third-generation horseman, Jason Barkley spent much of his childhood on the backside. The Evansville, Indiana native knew from a young age that he wanted to follow in the footsteps his father, trainer Jeff Barkley. After graduating from the University of Louisville, the younger Barkley spent several years learning from an accomplished list of conditioners. He served as barn foreman for Steve Margolis, Paul McGee and Wayne Catalano and then got his first assistant job with Nick Zito. After additional stints with Joe Sharp and Wesley Ward, Barkley was ready to go out on his own.

Barkley celebrated his first winner on opening day of the Keeneland Fall Meet in 2017. His numbers have grown since then and last year, he topped $1 million in earnings for the first time in his stable’s five full seasons of operation. Based on the Kentucky circuit from April to November and splitting winters between Oaklawn Park and Fair Grounds, Barkley’s stable consists of around 30 horses in training.

His most well-known horse is also his first graded stakes winner. NBS Stable’s Spooky Channel (English Channel) won the GIII Sycamore S. in 2021 and this winter, the fan-favorite gelding with 12 wins from 26 starts is now gearing up for his 8-year-old season. He is entered for the GIII John B. Connally Turf Cup S. on Saturday at Sam Houston.

Other performers that appear to have promising 2023 seasons ahead of them include Franklin Ave Equine and Jonathan Green’s Quick Munny (Munnings), who won in her 5-year-old debut last week at Fair Grounds and sells at the upcoming Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Winter Mixed Sale as Hip 341, as well as Forest Chimes (Tonalist), who won impressively on debut in December and recently ran fourth in the Silverbulletday S.

Barkley is well known in the Twittersphere both for his openness in showing the behind the scenes of his stable and his honest advocacy for his fellow horsemen.

The Barkley gang at Fair Grounds | Jason Barkley

What has been the key to your stable’s growth since you first opened?

A lot of it is about upgrading the quality little by little. We have been active at the sales for the past couple of years as opposed to mainly claiming horses. Once you get into the sales, you’re looking to get better and better horses because better horses lead to bigger purses and so on.

My dad trained for NBS Stable and when he retired, I took over for them. They’ve grown exponentially over the past couple of years which has allowed me to grow as well. At this point with them, we’ll consistently have something running in stakes races. When you’re in those races and you’re 4-1 or 5-1, you feel like you have a shot. It’s not like you’re just in there to be in there.

We hit the million-dollar mark last year even though we ran about 50 less starts than the year before. It’s about focusing on placement. There’s this pressure as a young trainer to run. If the race you wanted to run in was for $15,000 and it didn’t go, but the $25,000 race went, there’s this pressure that you should run anyways. That brings your numbers down and really it brings everything down, so I think it’s about growing out of that mindset.

What is the biggest challenge in the first few years of being on your own?

Growing into the right clientele. When you’re younger, you take anybody who comes along. You want to keep them, so you do whatever you can to make them happy. They might want to run for $30,000 and you might want to run for $15,000 and you end up in the $30,000. You don’t want to get claimed because that’s one less horse you have when you might only have eight. And you don’t want to make the client mad because if the horse doesn’t win but still gets claimed, the client might not come back.

Once you push through that wall, you can think, ‘You know what, if the horse gets claimed, it gets claimed. But I have to win.’ If the client doesn’t understand that, they’re probably not going to do much for your career anyway because they’re going to consistently want to be in races that you can’t win.

The faster you force yourself past that, the better off you are and the better chance you have at being successful. You have to know that it’s okay to lose a horse every now and then if you’re in a race that you can win.

It’s easy, when you’re an assistant, to say that this horse needs to be in for $15,000 because you don’t have to talk to the owner. Once you’re in charge and you have to make the phone calls and deal with the blowback, it’s a lot more difficult. It’s about learning how to have those conversations and work with the clientele so that it’s a good outcome for everyone. I think that’s more about maturity and learning about how to deal with people in general. The horses are the easy part.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone going out on their own this year, what would it be?

Stay aggressive and don’t get complacent. Once you start having success, it’s easy to get lazy on what got you there. You always have to keep your foot on the gas pedal because if you ease up a little bit, someone else is going to take your place. Someone else is going to go claim those horses or go get that client.

If you think, ‘Well I have 30 horses already and I just want to focus on these,’ you might miss an opportunity. I just picked up a client who had three horses when I picked him up and then we claimed seven, so now he has 10. If I had told him that I didn’t have the time or the stall space or whatever, someone else would have those 10 horses. So it’s about taking those opportunities and not getting complacent.

What is something that you think this incoming generation of trainers does better than the generations before them?

That’s a weird one for me to think about because I grew up on the racetrack. You see these trainers that grew up on the racetrack and most of them do things the way the previous generation did, but for me, I give out as much information as I can. I post on Twitter about my races, saying this is what our plan is or this is how a breeze went.

It’s a double-edged sword because there are obviously people who want to end horse racing so if you let people in too much, someone is going take advantage of it. It’s tricky, so I understand why people are guarded, but I think that you do you have to let the public in a little bit and I think this younger generation does have more of a willingness to share.

Do you think most trainers’ success is defined by their ability to train or by the quality of the horses they receive?

I think it starts with their ability and it ends with the quality. You’re not going to get quality unless you have ability early on. You have to prove that you can do it with nothing and that’s when you’ll get better quality. You can point to someone and say, ‘Oh, well he has all the good horses.’ Okay, but how did he get those? If you prove that you can do it with the bad ones, then you can get opportunities with the good ones.

It’s not always that way. Some guys will get handed 30 horses that are good because of where they worked, and good for them. They worked hard and put the time in. But at one point, Brad Cox was down to three horses and proved that he could win with those and now he has the quality.

I think that’s something that, as a younger trainer, you have to remember. That $5,000 claimer might not turn a lot of heads, but it might turn one head. My first-ever win was at Keeneland in an open $10,000 race. It was on opening day. I did an interview before the race, I did an interview after the race and I posted about it on Twitter. I made the most of it.

Now, I’ll get more legs out of a $5,000 claiming win on social media than some guys will get out of a stakes race. People ask why I do so much on social media. We don’t have a Sports Center for horse racing. They’ll show the NBA highlights for the two worst teams in the league every day, but we don’t have anything that shows the highlights from yesterday’s racing. You could have won three races in a day, but they could have been three $10,000 claimers so no one is going to care unless you tell them about it.

Aboukir Bay (Lord Nelson) dodges raindrops to break her maiden last September at Kentucky Downs before following that effort with an Allowance win at Keeneland | Coady

Who is your favorite horse that you’ve ever had in your stable?

It’s cliche to say my biggest horse. That’s too easy, so I’ll say that my most challenging horse was Arch Avenue (Archarcharch). She challenged me a ton as a horseman. She refused to train the right way — like literally run in the right direction on the track — so we had to do a lot of things with her to get her to go the right way. She ended up winning some races for us and we had a lot of fun with her. She was one of the first yearlings I picked out. We paid $5,500 for her and she made just under $100,000. She helped me prove to myself that I could do it, so she would be a favorite.

Again, it’s easy to say Spooky Channel and he’s definitely up there. He has a following that has grown with his success.

If you could spend one afternoon at the track enjoying the day (i.e. not working), which track would you be at and where would we find you hanging out?

At Keeneland in the Mezzanine Bar. When I was in college or when I was an assistant and we were done working, that was where I was.

If you aren’t at the track, what can you be found doing?

Watching races. (Laughs) It’s a sickness. Everyone asks me what my hobby is and I say I like horse racing. They tell me that’s my job. I say, ‘No, my job is training. My hobby is watching racing and maybe making a few bets.’

I have a 3-year-old now so a lot of my free time is spent with her. If I’m not at the track, I’m generally doing something with my wife Shelbi and my daughter Aria. We like playing board games.

If one change was made to racing that would make your life as a trainer easier, what would it be?

It’s impossible, but no races ever coming off the grass. That would make life so much simpler.

What is your biggest hot take? It can be racing-related or completely random.

Workout times don’t mean anything.

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