Hopes, dreams just disappear in a single misstep

Preakness Stakes

May 21, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Before the tears flooded Pimlico and before the screams raced around the dirt track. Before the mighty champion pulled up in pain and before the ambulance pulled away from the barn. Before we even understood what exactly could be at stake in the Preakness Stakes, there was Michael Matz, and he was all smiles.

His horse Barbaro was in the barn, less than an hour away from the race he was so certain to win. There hadn't been a lock like this in years.

Matz, the Maryland trainer, flashed that toothy smile and shook a few hands. His horse calmly left Barn No. 40 - reserved annually for the Kentucky Derby winner - and made his trek to the starting gates. He strolled with an excited energy, the last race of his life awaiting.

The parade moved to the grass track. Barbaro's entourage would rival that of a hip-hop star. On this day, he was the most loved animal and the important athlete in the world.

"Good luck!" someone screamed, and Matz smiled and waved.

The minutes slowly ticked away, and two, sometimes three grooms held the colt close. Barbaro walked in circles, each twitch and tug a reminder of just how powerful a thoroughbred can be. The sun reflected off his brown coat and an excited energy emanated off the horse. He moved rhythmically, like a boxer minutes away from a big fight.

In the gates, Barbaro was eager, so eager that he busted out early, drawing a brief cheer from the stands and from the infield. A record crowd of 118,402 was on hand, many clutching Barbaro betting slips.

"He actually tried to buck me off a couple of times," his jockey Edgar Prado would say later. "He was feeling that good."

The horse was escorted back into place, and the race began without a hitch. But something happened. Something wasn't right. Only 100 yards along the track and Prado heard a noise. His horse slowed.

Something flashed in the minds of veteran horsemen. When a horse hobbles, the worst-case scenario grabs your thoughts and squeezes tightly.

"It's the most devastating feeling you can have," said Nick Zito, another trainer.

Barbaro hobbled forward, lifting his right hind leg. Breath caught in the throat of even the most grizzled railbird. The shouts and screams that followed would echo from Pimlico to living-room couches, to racetracks, barns and nightmares.

"NOOOO!" a man yelled.

"I can't believe this," a woman said in a softer voice.

Matz sprinted through the crowd, climbing over a rail and racing along the track. Prado had dismounted and was keeled over. Matz checked on him first, then the horse.

The other horses soon crossed the finish line, blowing by Barbaro a second time. The screams grew louder. It was a beautiful and clear day. There were no clouds, no reason, no cheers that could've possibly muffled the cries.

Prado rose to greet one of the horse's owners, Gretchen Jackson. He hugged her.

"I'm sorry, Gretchen," he said.

"You did a great job," she told him.

The ambulance followed the horses' tracks and approached Barbaro. Eight other horses kept tearing around the track. Because that's what race horses do.

The track isn't always a happy place, but this day was the worst. Women clasped their cheeks. Husbands held wives. And mothers shielded their children's eyes.

Barbaro's pain was broadcast on national television, as men pushed him into the ambulance. "Oh, for God's sake," cried a woman in the stands. Each second, the gravity hit a new depth.

"It's a big reminder about what racing is," Zito said later. "People forget sometimes what's on the line. So many things can go wrong. "

Barbaro returned to his barn, and, at 7:13 p.m., he was loaded onto a trailer, now wearing a splint to support an apparent fracture. His hooves loudly stomped the trailer.

Elsewhere, everyone tried to make sense out of what had happened. No one seemed to realize that another horse had won the race. As the sun fell along the horizon, it was clear that all eight horses that crossed the finish line were the day's winners.

"It didn't work out for us," said Dan Hendricks, trainer of Brother Derek, "but we get to go home."

Just a couple of minutes after Barbaro was loaded onto the trailer, three police motorcycles - the horse's escort - pulled away. Matz climbed into the passenger side of a BMW X5.

"Good luck, Michael," someone yelled. "We're praying for you."

The horse and the trainer left the park for one of the area's finest animal hospitals, the fate of a powerful racehorse completely uncertain.

Making sense of tragedy is difficult, and that's why we try to move past it as quickly as possible.

Barbaro is a horse that symbolized hope. And now, as the tears dry at the racetrack, hope has become the most important thing in the life of a racehorse. rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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