Sitting underneath the twin spires of Churchill Downs at this Saturday’s Kentucky Derby will be trainer Doug O’Neill’s good luck charm — a 13-year-old girl from Missouri named Hope Hudson.
Last year O’Neill captured the nation’s attention as the trainer of I’ll Have Another, who ran to inspirational wins in the Kentucky Derby and at the Preakness. I’ll Have Another fell short of Triple Crown history the Friday before Belmont when an injury sidelined the two-year old just one day before the race. But all along the way from Churchill Downs to Pimlico and then to New York, the then 12-year old Hope was a part of the journey. She was such an integral part of the journey that she'll be present on Saturday when O'Neill's horse Goldencents goes off as one of the race's favorites.
How'd this whole relationship come about? Well, the Make-A-Wish Foundation granted Hope’s wish to see the Kentucky Derby in person last spring, allowing the not-quite-yet-a-teenager to achieve a long-lasting dream. Hope has a rare genetic disorder named Hadju-Cheney Syndrome, also called Serpentine Fibula Polycystic Kidney Syndrome. The foundation partnered with O’Neill who hosted her during the Derby to make her dream come true. Though wheelchair bound, Hope is an avid follower of all things dealing with horses.
"I'm on the Make A Wish Foundation's board for their Kentucky chapter, and being that my career is based in the horse industry, I provide assistance with coordinating their horse-themed wishes," said Jen Roytz, marketing director for Three Chimneys Farm. "They asked me if I would assist with planning a cool experience for Hope and her family, so I just tried to connect the dots by asking favors from friends and clients of the farm, one of which was the team behind I'll Have Another, who's the son of one of our farm's stallions, Flower Alley."
When I’ll Have Another won, the syndicate asked her to follow the horse to Maryland a couple weeks later to see if lightning would strike twice. It did.
After a win at the Preakness, there was no doubt in O’Neill’s mind that Hope was heading with him for the last leg of the Triple Crown.
It has been a rough 12 years of life for Hope, who has gone through 10 major surgeries for her many ailments. She has lenses in her eyes to help her see and twice has gone through decompression surgery. As one might imagine given her physical battles, Hope’s childhood didn’t allow her to play in the park with the other children or enjoy a normal upbringing at all. So her creative outlet became the ponies. She amazed O’Neill at the hotel prior to the Derby with her knowledge of racing history and in particular the bloodlines of great horses.
“Hope is the biggest horse lover I have ever met," Hope's mother Jennifer Hudson said. "We started her early with horse racing, we always watched the big races on TV. On Kentucky Derby day we would watch ‘Breakfast at Churchill’ when she was little so I guess she kind of grew up watching with us. Anytime there was anything [with] horses on TV we were watching.
“Since she is not able to be as active as most kids she has taken to learning the lineage of the race horses. She was even telling some of the people we met on our journey to some of the farms last year who their horses were related to.”
The young girl certainly made an impression on all those she met. She told stories about great horses she had researched, talked sires and foals with trained horsemen and left everyone she in contact with smiling.
She may have her physical battles but when around horses, Hope comes alive. Now she’s ready again to be the charm for Goldencents. After the amazing run of I’ll Have Another last spring, O’Neill’s team asked Hope back for a second time to rekindle some of the magic of last year’s improbable run.
Hope is in need of her own bit of a winning streak right now.
Last summer, Hope had her second decompression surgery, and while she isn’t out of the woods, she is doing better. Her brainstem is basically sitting on her cervical spine and any surgery is very risky. During her last surgery, the surgeon found she had a leak in her brain linings, complicating things further.
“Her outlook is unknown since it is genetic and there is no cure we take each day as it comes. I will say that since her last surgery in August she feels better most days. Anything can pop up in a moment with her though so we are always guarded and on alert. She attends a regular school she uses her wheelchair some days when she is very weak,” Jennifer Hudson said. “She often expresses her wish to be able to run and play in the yard with her little sister but takes it in stride, and will do what she can with her. I have researched many case studies on this syndrome but there really haven’t been as many issues as she has had. We see one of her many specialists at least once a month.”
Those on the outside would look and see a girl with the world seemingly against her, whose only luck has been no luck at all. To a proud mother who will be sitting next to her daughter on Saturday afternoon before the Kentucky Derby, Hope for a few short hours will simply be enjoying the moment.
A moment with the luckiest girl in horse racing.
Follow Yahoo! Sports Kristian R. Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer