Barbaro hailed as hero

500-plus fans of late Derby champ gather to mark his 4th birthday

April 30, 2007|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun Reporter

STANTON, Del. -- They threw the words "hero" and "courage" around like they were confetti. They wore earrings, T-shirts, necklaces, hats and bracelets containing his picture. They cried and said prayers in his memory, they handed over big chunks of money for pictures of him and they gave a standing ovation to his owners, as well as to the people who tried, for eight months, to save him.

To the 500-plus people who showed up yesterday at the Delaware Park Race Track and Casino, Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby champion, was more than a racehorse. He was, as they said time and time again, a hero.

The celebration, organized by the group Fans Of Barbaro, was not only an opportunity to honor the horse on what would have been his fourth birthday at the track where Barbaro won his maiden race on Oct. 4, 2005, but it was also a chance for FOBs (as they usually refer to themselves) to meet one another, because many had bonded on the Internet over the past year. It was a chance to talk to people who felt touched by Barbaro's life, inspired by his eight-month struggle to recover from a leg injury he suffered at the Preakness, and deeply saddened when he had to be euthanized in late January after he contracted the hoof disease laminitis.

"On the train down here, I told someone, `I'm headed to meet 500 people that I've never met, but they're still my family,'" said Nancy Goss, 60, who came from Hamden, Conn., and wore a Barbaro T-shirt, a Barbaro hat, bracelets with Barbaro's name on them and earrings with Barbaro's picture. "Barbaro just represents everything good about racing. He feels like an old friend."

People came from all over the continental United States, as well as Canada and Puerto Rico. At least 31 states were represented, and people - most of them dressed in the lime-green and blue that Barbaro wore while racing for Lael Stables - spent most of the afternoon hugging, laughing and talking about ways to honor Barbaro's legacy. Some said they were not even racing fans. They just felt a connection with him.

Barbaro's owners, Gretchen and Roy Jackson, attended the event, and before they could even take the microphone to speak, they were given a standing ovation.

"Never in my wildest dreams could I have anticipated anything like this four years ago when Barbaro was born," Gretchen Jackson said. "His racing career was remarkable for us. He just stunned us. Now that time has passed and Barbaro was hurt, struggled to heal and didn't win, we are into a new era and you are leading the way."

This was the biggest celebration for Barbaro's birthday, but it wasn't the only one. Around the country, several smaller but similar Barbaro gatherings were scheduled. Most of those attending have been dedicated members of the Web site timwoolleyracing.com, which hosts a Barbaro message board.

For those who can't understand why people would obsess so much over a horse and think the FOBs are a little bit crazy, that's OK. They don't particularly care.

"I think some of us probably are nuts," said Becky Fredricks, 55, who lives in Lothian in Anne Arundel County. "I'm probably nuts. I spent $1,000 last night on a picture of Barbaro grazing. But the money went to research to find a cure for laminitis, so I'm happy. A lot of people say things like, `It's just a horse. It's not a person.' But, to me, they don't get it. Animals are so honest. Barbaro never lied. He never cheated. He never took drugs. He just wanted to run. He had a magical spirit."

Barbaro's death was particularly difficult for Fredricks, because just the day before she had to euthanize her Siamese cat, Lottie, because of kidney failure.

"I was already a wreck, and I thought I'd already cried as much as I could," Fredricks said. "Then the next day at 10:30, I heard that Barbaro had to be put down. It was tough. This has been good being here, but I'm still sad that he's gone."

The hope for many Barbaro fans is that he'll actually accomplish more in death than he did in life by raising awareness about laminitis (which also killed Triple Crown winner Secretariat), and by convincing people that slaughtering horses, simply because they're old or injured, is inhumane. Thanks to the efforts of the FOBs, it was announced yesterday, more than 600 horses have been saved from slaughter this year, and yesterday $18,000 was raised for laminitis research.

The most moving tribute to Barbaro yesterday, however, came from someone who wasn't even there. Edgar Prado, the jockey who rode Barbaro to victory in the Kentucky Derby, couldn't attend, but he e-mailed some of his thoughts to ESPN and ABC reporter Jeannine Edwards, who read them aloud while choking back tears.

"Thank you, Barbaro, for giving me the best ride of my life," Prado wrote. "Thank you for letting me love you. Thank you for being my friend. I hope one day we can be reunited for one more ride."

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com

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