Calm, concern at Fair Hill

With Barbaro in its thoughts, staff carries on at home base

May 22, 2006|By SANDRA MCKEE | SANDRA MCKEE,SUN REPORTER

The peace of the Fair Hill Training Center, which trainer Michael Matz had raved about since returning Barbaro to his picturesque home in Cecil County after his dominating Kentucky Derby victory two weeks ago, seemed undisturbed yesterday.

A day after the star 3-year-old thoroughbred had suffered a life-threatening broken right hind leg shortly after leaving the starting gate in the 131st Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, Matz went through his normal morning training regimen before going to see his horse.

Awhile later, a man was fishing at the pond alongside Training Center Drive. A horse rolled in the dirt in a round, turn-out pen and others grazed in their paddocks.

But looks can be deceiving.

"It's quiet," said assistant trainer Peter Brette, who has worked with the horse every day as Barbaro's exercise rider. "There are 60 horses here that need to be taken care of, and the people working here just want to get the horses finished to see what happens."

Brette sat alone on a log, his shoulders hunched forward, partly against the chill in the air and likely partly against the pain in his heart, as he watched a blacksmith work.

Barbaro, undefeated going into the Preakness, had stolen the hearts of many across the nation. At least five states - Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Florida - wanted to claim him as theirs.

"A lot of people take the Kentucky Derby winner to heart," Brette said. "A lot of Americans only watch three races a year, the Triple Crown races. Barbaro gave them hope. They saw in him a possible Triple Crown winner. He drew them to the sport. And now ... people will turn away.

"It's devastating," Brette added. "You just want it to be OK. When you're in racing, things like this happen. But as you grow within the sport, you like to think the good times outweigh the bad. But it's hard to grasp the two extremes we've experienced - the Kentucky Derby victory and now this. It seems so unfair."

While Barbaro waited for his surgery yesterday, his Fair Hill family went about its routine. Rafael Orozco, who has worked for Matz for 10 years and who was the first on the racetrack Saturday evening to grab Barbaro's bridle and help jockey Edgar Prado control his injured horse, nodded yes, it seems normal in the barn to strangers, but it is not normal.

"Everything is different this morning," Orozco said. "Yesterday morning everyone was happy, singing, looking forward to the race. People here are always happy, but not today. Barbaro is so special. ... I love that horse and I am sorry what happened to him."

Barbaro's groom, Oscar Salazar, did not come to work.

"He didn't say he wasn't coming," Brette said. "But he was very upset yesterday."

The odds are long for Barbaro's recovery. Surgeons worked for more than four hours yesterday to repair the damage and another 3 1/2 helping him through recovery and into his stall, as reporters gathered at the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals at the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa., waiting to hear the outcome of the surgery.

The news was very good. Barbaro hopped in his stall, perhaps not the best thing for the cast that he wore to protect the long metal plate in his leg with its 23 screws, but no damage was done. And he chowed down on a loaf of hay.

"He's come out of it very well," said his surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson. "I'm not claiming he's cured. To be brutally honest, he's still a coin toss, even given how well he's made it to this point."

Local residents hung posters on the fence along the road to the hospital. Typical of the messages was one printed in red magic marker that said: "Barbaro hope `u' feel better soon. Meghan, age 5."

Inside, a table in the reception area held bouquets of roses, baskets of spring flowers and a bunch of carrots from Barbaro's fans, wishing him, owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson and his trainer well.

At Pimlico yesterday morning, it was the same. Bernardini's trainer, Tom Albertrani, tried to find a way to enjoy his horse's Preakness victory -which he said didn't hit him until 2 a.m. yesterday, when he woke up and said, "I won the Preakness!" - without overlooking Barbaro.

Bernardini, who was in front of Barbaro when he broke down, overtook Sweetnorthernsaint out of the last turn and drove to a 5 1/4 -length victory, surprising many who believed the lightly raced son of A.P. Indy needed more seasoning. Albertrani said a decision on running Bernardini in the Belmont could come in a few days.

Trainer Nick Zito, whose Hemingway's Key finished third Saturday and likely will run in the Belmont, said: "Everyone who has passion for horse racing has to be shaken by what's happened to Barbaro.

"We're all vulnerable. You never know when. ... It didn't have to be life-threatening, but it was."

In Maryland, where the racing community has had to endure the deaths of horses from the herpes virus and a barn fire at Fair Hill, Barbaro's plight was still hard to take.

"Everyone here is devastated," said Sally Goswell, the Fair Hill manager. "We're just all hoping he makes it through."

smm2me@aol.com

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