How’s the horse? It was the standard greeting from people for more than eight months. No how’s the wife, your family or what are you working on.
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 my dog, Smarty, nearby neighbor Camilla would holler from her garden: “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. And now he’s gone.
After the colt shattered his right hind leg in the Preakness Stakes, surgery repaired the damaged area, but because of the severity of the injury Barbaro was prone to developing laminitis. The sports world held its breath following the colt's saga for the next seven months. On January 28 the disease struck in both his front feet and the colt became clearly distressed. Without a good leg to stand on, his owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson made the decision to end the horse’s life.
I have written the story and lived it for all these months. I have gotten to know the players, a clan of dedicated, classy folks. The Jacksons graciously hosted me at their gorgeous Lael Farm a few times. They showed me a 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.
Surgeon Dean Richardson and farrier Rob Sigafoos were especially helpful explaining medical jargon in everyday language. From trainer Michael Matz and his assistant Peter Brette to Fair Hill vet Kathy Anderson and training center manager Sally Goswell, they all carved out time.
I’m often asked why Barbaro attracted such a tremendous outpouring of adoration and concern. People are devoted to animals. People love greatness. In Barbaro, we were given a special gift.
He was the winner of the world’s most famous race. Who knows what the colt could have achieved. He was just getting started. Through multiple surgeries and countless cast changes at the New Bolton Center, Barbaro became a symbol of strength and courage.
Barbaro repeatedly utilized his smarts that fostered an uncommon will to live. He was a source of inspiration for millions, the majority far removed from racing.
Sixteen months ago I watched the powerful 2-year old colt glide across the Delaware Park’s turf course winning racing debut by seven lengths.
He celebrated New Years Day-- now a three-year old-- last year in Miami where he easily won another grass race, the Tropical Derby. Afterwards trainer Matz switched the versatile colt to the dirt and pointed for the Triple Crown. In a phone conversation last February, Matz, a quiet man, bubbled with emotion.
“This horse makes me shiver when I see him work on the dirt,” he said.
Racing from the far outside, the colt captured a hard fought victory in the Florida Derby. Matz knew he had something special.
“He went in as a boy and came out a man,” Matz told me in early April.
The strapping bay colt with a splash of white on his forehead had an unmistakable aura about him leading into the Kentucky Derby. The second choice at 6-1, Barbaro romped by 6 ½ lengths, the biggest Derby winning margin in 60 years.
My wife Jane and I watched the Derby at our home that sits on the far turn of what was once a vintage racetrack 100 years ago. We throw an annual Derby Party for 60 friends where you’ll find a steady flow of mint juleps and the Sin City Band playing out back.
When Barbaro rumbled around the far turn at Churchill Downs and powered away in the stretch, the walls in our 1928 house trembled.
Over the next two weeks I was part of the Barbaro patrol that unfolded at the formerly peaceful grounds of the Fair Hill Training Center.
When Barbaro stood at the entrance to the training track, cameras clicked like summer cicadas. The colt bounced up and down, raring to go. Later he rolled over and over in a round pen, then eagerly munched on grass and buttercups in a turn-out paddock.
People inquired about what type of feed Barbaro ate and how much he exercised. A lot of them wanted to know what it’s like to sit on the back of the Derby winner. Late one afternoon at the training barn Barbaro’s exercise rider 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.”
Two weeks later when Barbaro was vanned to Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes a boisterous crowd gathered at his home base at the Fair Hill Training Center to cheer him on. No one could have imagined he would never return to his barn.
Late in the afternoon on May 20, I was at Old Hilltop - Pimlico Racecourse - ready to watch Barbaro put on another show. After the starting gates sprung open I was standing at the rail of the turf course, 50 yards away, looking directly across at Barbaro when he took a bad step and shattered his right hind leg. For a split second it seemed he was moving backwards as the other horses sped away.
Quickly news of the severity of the injury rippled through the crowd. Within an hour Barbaro was in an equine ambulance, speeding his way to 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 his assistant Brette at the wheel, they chased the ambulance into the night.
Last fall I visited with Brette at Fair Hill as the colt soldiered on with his recovery. I asked him about the ride to New Bolton 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.”