A beautiful day suddenly takes a terrible turn

Preakness Stakes

May 21, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

All day, right up until the start of the race, it was one of the best Preakness Saturdays. The weather was magnificent, the crowd colossal, the mood euphoric. Bettors sent Barbaro off as the 1-2 favorite, thinking they might see a piece of Triple Crown history.

Life was so good. And then, suddenly, it was awful. Absolutely awful.

Barbaro pulled up 200 yards into the race, his right rear ankle flapping as if it were barely connected to the rest of the leg. There was never any doubt that he was injured and that it was serious and that he would never race again. He drifted awkwardly to his right on three legs and came to a halt in front of the packed grandstand.

The fans went silent, the noise they'd been making trailing away as their heartbreak set in.

The other horses kept running, curving through the first turn and sprinting up the backstretch. The track announcer called their names, and a thin trail of shouts echoed. Someone was going to win the Preakness, and a few people cared.

But barely anyone.

Most eyes remained fixed on the drama playing out in the grandstand's shadows, just beyond the finish line. Barbaro, frightened and agitated, was quickly surrounded by his trainer, his owners, track officials. He reared, and was held. An equine ambulance roared toward him, churning through the stretch along the outside rail.

The other horses in the race came around the second turn and headed for the finish. A 12-1 shot named Bernardini zoomed past the early leaders and pulled away from Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint, the horses that had been expected to challenge Barbaro.

It would have been a great story, a major upset. But barely anyone watched.

Bernardini's victory will be the legacy of this race; his name will become a fixture on the roll call of Preakness winners that dates to the 1870s.

But on the day it happened, in front of 118,402 fans at Pimlico, the winner was just a footnote. A shrug.

"It didn't matter where I finished," said Dan Hendricks, trainer of Brother Derek. "After what happened [with Barbaro], it took the fun out of it."

In minutes, the question changed from whether Barbaro might be good enough to win a Triple Crown to whether he would survive his injuries. Would he die?

On the track, ambulance workers put up a green screen to keep fans from seeing the horse, and it briefly seemed the worst scenario imaginable would unfold. Barbaro would be euthanized on the track.

But then the screen came down and the horse was loaded onto the ambulance and taken away. The fans exhaled but were left to wonder what would happen. And then they left, exhibiting little frat-boy rambunctiousness as they spilled out of the track and onto the streets around Pimlico, somberly heading home.

The party was over. The party was ruined.

In the winner's circle, Frank Stronach, owner of the track, handed over the trophy with a grim expression.

"Not a happy time," he said.

Then the long wait set in. A crowd of reporters gathered outside Barbaro's barn as veterinarians examined him inside. Dusk fell on a beautiful evening, but Larry Bramlage, a veterinarian on call, said the injury was serious. Barbaro might or might not live.

The horse was put back in the ambulance and pointed toward an animal hospital 70 miles away in Kennett Square, Pa., not far from Barbaro's home at the Fair Hill Training Center in Cecil County. There probably would be surgery. Who knew what would happen?

The ambulance left with a police escort in front of it and television helicopters trailing it, broadcasting the trip for viewers. There would be so many questions. Did the injury occur when Barbaro broke through the starting gate prematurely, delaying the start of the race? Probably not. Was there any way to see it coming? Absolutely not.

Edgar Prado, the jockey, said it was simple - the horse seemed to feel great but "took a bad step" about 100 yards into the race.

"I heard a noise," Prado said, barely controlling his emotions.

Breakdowns are racing's grimmest reality, a sadly occasional occurrence.

"These things happen that no one can dream of," trainer Nick Zito said.

The Triple Crown has experienced them before. Union City was destroyed after the 1993 Preakness. Prairie Bayou was destroyed after the 1993 Belmont. Charismatic broke down in the 1999 Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line. At least he survived.

This seemed worse, for some reason. Barbaro had raced so splendidly in the Kentucky Derby and so much seemed possible, and then, suddenly, the only question was whether he would live. It was awful to watch, awful to think about, awful in every way.

Just awful. john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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