High knee action might give leg up

Barbaro's run kicks aside turf theory


The day after the Kentucky Derby, trainer Bob Baffert met with some reporters at his barn on the Churchill Downs backstretch and told this story about seeing Barbaro in the paddock before the race.

"My wife, Jill, said, `Oh my God, look at him. He looks good.' But I go, `Yeah, I think he's a turf horse, honey.' She said, `You better hope so."'

Barbaro, who won the Kentucky Derby by an impressive 6 1/2 lengths, gave longtime horsemen the impression that he might be a turf horse because of his high knee-action style of running, a style better suited for the turf, where the grass cushions the impact of the hooves on the earth.

And Barbaro, whose racing career started with three turf victories, may still turn out to be a great turf horse. He's the son of Dynaformer and La Ville Rouge, a family tree that provides for distance and success on dirt and turf, and his owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, have said they may run him in some of the big European turf races after the Triple Crown.

But for now, Barbaro, 6-for-6 in his career on turf and dirt going into Saturday's 131st Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, is definitely more than just a capable dirt horse.

After the Derby, Baffert saw that, too, describing Barbaro's run for the roses as, "Spectacular. ... He looked like a man among boys in the paddock. He looked like Point Given to me. What a horse, though, what a specimen. He's a big, long-striding, high-cruising dude."

Pictures of Barbaro coming down the stretch at the Derby show his knees high, while others' are lower, more flattened out.

No one said much about Barbaro's style until the week leading up to the Derby. Then, said assistant trainer Peter Brette, "People started looking around for reasons why he should lose."

After weeks of making a big deal about trainer Michael Matz's training plan that included bringing Barbaro into the Derby off a five-week layoff, something that hadn't been done successfully in 50 years, someone latched on to the horse's high-action running style.

But Matz said he was as mystified by the questions about Barbaro's running style as he was about the ones he heard about the five-week layoff.

"It's just his style of going," Matz said, and then pulled up the sleeve on his sweater to reveal his left arm.

"Look at my arm," he said, holding it out to show how his arm will not straighten out because of a kink at the elbow. "There's no reason for it. It's just the way it is. Barbaro's high knee action, that's just his style.

"That's the way he's built and moves. Some horses have bad, bad knees, but they're so strong they overcome it. People walk differently from one another. Some walk with their toes pointed in, some with their toes pointed out, but they still walk fine.

"The overall picture of this horse is that he's a winner. I don't care if he wants to put his feet up around his ears, if that's what he wants to do."

Brette, who regularly rides Barbaro in his training sessions, said he never felt anything unusual in Barbaro's running style. He said Barbaro's half-brother, Holy Ground, doesn't have the high knee style and was surprised when people started pointing it out in Barbaro.

"Usually, when a horse has the high knee action, it looks as if they hit the ground pretty hard," Brette said. "On grass that isn't such a big deal because the grass cushions the landing. But Barbaro doesn't impact the ground that hard. He is so wonderfully balanced and so powerful from behind, it offsets the running style."

Brette, 40, also explained that horses with a high style of running are usually not the fastest horses.

"With the high knees, the amount of time they spend in the air, they often end up going backward," he said. "Barbaro runs so smoothly, it doesn't impede his progress. He's just a very athletic and very well-balanced horse. He's so quick and so fast it cancels all the negatives."

Dan Peitz, who trains third-place Derby finisher Steppenwolfer, said when thoroughbred trainers look for horses, they generally avoid the ones with high knee action like Barbaro.

"Well, at least we used to," Peitz said. "Now, everyone's got to find one with all that knee action. I told my [horse] buyer [after the Derby], `Go find me one like that, with all that knee action.' It's another thing to think about."

Just like a lot of trainers will reassess their feelings about a five-week layoff before the Derby next spring.

But something that also should be considered is this: Barbaro just might be a horse with rare multiple talents. It's something Baffert already acknowledges.

"When they're that good on grass and dirt, like John Henry was that way, it's a freak of nature," Baffert said.

Brette, who learned his trade in England and then rode and trained horses in Dubai for the royal family for 14 years before coming to the United States two years ago, smiled and said, "You won't see the likes of this horse again for a long, long time."

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