Just a few more furlongs

January 30, 2007

If Barbaro had been quickly put down after he shattered his leg in full view of a horrified Preakness crowd last May, the Kentucky Derby winner might now be just a sad footnote.

If the gifted colt had continued to recover after heroic surgery put him back on four feet and grazing by mid-August, he might already have returned to his home stable in Pennsylvania - destined for a decade or two as a beloved pasture potato.

With his death yesterday, though, Barbaro and his fans seem cruelly cheated. For all the pain, the money, the extraordinary veterinary effort and the loving attention to every detail of his saga from the legions of children and adults whose hearts he touched, Barbaro only got eight more months. And despite what seemed a courageous spirit, those months of bone pins and body slings - not to mention removal of most of one hoof - must have been hard on a creature bred to run.

Barbaro's discomfort was the main concern of his tearful owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, and the primary consideration in their decision to let him go after a painful night following surgery Saturday and news of distress in all four feet.

Their test of Barbaro's views in the matter during his long months of recuperation were the standard signals: his appetite, his mood, his ability to be frisky within limits. Barbaro proved remarkably game. Even when hobbling along on those magnificent legs that carried him to the runaway Derby victory that tagged him for greatness, he seemed to take the impairment quite literally in stride.

The Jacksons clearly loved their horse. But even they were taken aback by the outpouring of cards, gifts, flowers, e-mails, poems and prayers Barbaro inspired. Donors contributed $1.2 million in his name for new equipment at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center veterinary facility, where his case also considerably advanced medical understanding of such ailments.

A most fitting tribute to Barbaro would be for the racing industry to learn from his example, and that of Funny Cide, Seabiscuit and the other celebrated horse heroes, that it has something far more precious to promote than gambling.

Instead of canceling the Pimlico Special this year, the Maryland Jockey Club ought to dedicate the Preakness-eve race to Barbaro. He certainly did more than any slot machine to draw the best sort of attention to his sport.

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