It’s hard to believe that 10 years have passed since Barbaro’s dominating victory in the 132nd Kentucky Derby.
With his trademark long fluid stride, Barbaro roared down the stretch to win by 6 ½ lengths — the biggest Derby winning margin in 60 years.
Two weeks later the strapping bay colt with the white star on his forehead headed to the 2006 Preakness Stakes with a perfect 6-for-6 record. A boisterous crowd gathered at the colt’s home base, the Fair Hill Training Center in northern Maryland, to cheer him on. No one could have imagined he would never return to his barn.
Less than 100 yards from the start, Barbaro took a bad step that shattered his right hind leg into more than 20 pieces. He would spend the next eight months in intensive care at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center. He became a symbol of courage and determination as millions of hearts around the world embraced the colt as he fought gallantly to survive.
I wrote and lived Barbaro’s story for all those months as a features writer for the national horse racing magazine Blood-Horse, as well as a Sunday horse racing columnist for the West Chester Daily Local newspaper.
I became the go-to guy for Barbaro updates for my friends and neighbors. After each of Barbaro’s surgeries Pat, our mailman, pumped me for regular updates. The good ones he passed along to his young children at night. At the grocery store on Saturday mornings, Karen quizzed me about America’s favorite patient.
When I walked our dog Smarty nearby neighbor Camilla would holler from her garden bed: “what have you heard?” She is married to Greg, a local minister, who in his younger days also called races at a track in Kentucky. Talk about the daily double.
Everyone wanted to know about Barbaro.
The day after the Preakness equine surgeon Dean Richardson performed the initial surgery and placed 27 screws and a locking metal compression plate on Barbaro’s shattered limb.
Still, Richardson knew that due to the severity of the injury Barbaro would be prone to developing laminitis — a painful inflammatory condition of the tissues that bonds the hoof wall to the coffin bone in the horse’s hoof.
As the months rolled on at New Bolton he spent time in the equine recovery pool and in a motorized sling system to ease pressure on his legs.
The white clapboard fences surrounding New Bolton’s grounds were papered with get well posters. Each day baskets of carrots arrived as well as treats for the staff.
Over all those months I got to know the players, a clan of dedicated professionals, classy folks. Barbaro’s owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, graciously hosted me at their gorgeous Lael Farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania. They showed me an 1880s family painting of six foxhounds with the particular dog’s name under each one. Barbaro was named for the hound on the far right side. On another visit, I met their miniature donkeys.
Richardson and farrier Rob Sigafoos were especially helpful explaining medical jargon in everyday language. From trainer Michael Matz and his assistant and Barbaro’s exercise rider Peter Brette to Fair Hill veterinarian Kathy Anderson, they all carved out time. Anderson explained how Barbaro repeatedly utilized his smarts that fostered an uncommon will to live.
“I like to think he understands ‘that if I shift my weight this way (in the sling), I feel better,'” Anderson said. “I’d say that’s not typical of racehorses. They’re so competitive, they just react, rather than having a planned action. At Fair Hill, Barbaro was never unfriendly, but he wanted his space. At New Bolton he has to cooperate with a lot of people. He may or may not enjoy it, but he realizes it’s what he needs to do to feel better.”
Around Christmas 2006 the prognosis was so good that plans were being formulated to leave New Bolton and head to a destination where he could be a horse once more. But in January Barbaro suffered a series of setbacks and his pain got progressively worse. Then he contracted laminitis in both front hooves. Clearly distressed, he stood all night rather than resting in his stall. The Jacksons made the hard decision to euthanize the horse.
“He was a totally different horse yesterday morning,” Richardson recounted at a standing-room-only press conference. “He had gone through the entire night before for the first time ever being uncertain of himself, not knowing what to do, not knowing how to get up or down. He was left with not one good leg.”
I was often asked why Barbaro attracted such a tremendous outpouring of adoration and concern. People are devoted to animals. People love greatness. People love bravery. Barbaro endured major surgeries and weekly procedures. Each time the colt battled back he touched people’s hearts a little more strongly. He was a source of inspiration for millions, the majority far removed from racing. The handsome colt proved that greatness is not achieved only on the racetrack.
In Barbaro, we were given a special gift.
A lot of people wanted to know what it’s like to sit on the back of the Derby winner. Late one afternoon at the training barn Peter Brette told me.
“It’s like driving a Porsche,” said Brette, an Englishman with an easy smile. “You put your foot down, and he bumps you right up. That was the sensation. Heading into the Derby, every day I said, good God, he’s getting stronger and stronger.”
I still think back to that afternoon at Pimlico where I was ready to watch Barbaro put on another show. I was standing at the rail of the turf course, 20 yards away, looking directly across at the colt when he took that bad step. For a split second it seemed he was moving backwards as the other horses galloped away.
Quickly news of the severity of the injury rippled through the crowd. Within an hour Barbaro was led onto an equine ambulance, speeding his way to the New Bolton Center in Pennsylvania. Three Baltimore policemen led the way on motorcycles. I watched as a grief-stricken Matz climbed into a silver SUV. With Brette at the wheel, they chased the ambulance into the night.
In the fall of 2006 I visited with Brette at Fair Hill as the colt soldiered on with his recovery. I asked him about the ride to New Bolton Center on that frantic May evening.
“I don’t think Michael and I said two words,” he related. “We were both in shock. The scene was surreal. People were standing on each overpass holding signs and rooting for Barbaro as the ambulance rushed past. As long as I live I’ll never forget it. They loved the horse so much.”