Barbaro's domination at Derby allowed legend to fly out of gate

May 05, 2007|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. // Acombination of images helped the nation become so entranced with Barbaro. The most devastating was the sight of the brilliant 3-year-old colt shattering a leg in the Preakness and then standing forlornly on the track, damaged leg raised, as attendants worked to save him.

There also were the newspaper pictures of the flood of cards and flowers he received, as well as a poignant shot of him grazing outside his veterinary clinic in Kennett Square, Pa., with casts on both back legs - a vivid indication of how well his fight to survive was going, but also how hard it was.

All but forgotten was the inspiring image that helped Barbaro become so popular in the first place - the sight of him blazing to victory in the Kentucky Derby, 6 1/2 lengths ahead of his nearest challenger.

Now more than three months after Barbaro was euthanized, the horse is hovering over this year's Kentucky Derby, set for this afternoon at Churchill Downs.

"He's on our minds," said John Shirreffs, who trained 2005 Derby winner Giacomo and is back this year with Tiago.

The horse racing industry, always starved for attention, would love to see another star of his caliber emerge today. But the chances are small.

Barbaro never lost a race he started and finished, winning six in a row before the Preakness. His margin of victory in the Derby was the race's largest since 1946. And he ran away down the stretch at Churchill Downs without his jockey, Edgar Prado, needing to wield the whip, much less use it.

Barbaro later became an object of pity and almost a cliche as a staple of America's daily news digest for more than eight months. His precarious condition trumped all previous perceptions of him. When his fans spoke of his champion's courage and heart, they referred mostly to traits he exhibited as he fought for his life.

Seemingly forgotten - but summoned again this week at the Derby, a year after his greatest triumph - was the championship qualities he exhibited on the first Saturday of May 2006.

"When people inside the horse racing industry mention his name, the common word association is `great horse,' " Shirreffs said. "You seldom see what he did [at the Derby]."

Had he remained healthy, would Barbaro have become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown? Would he have become the cover boy racing has long sought to kick-start its flagging fortunes?

His sprawling legions of fans like to think so, but of course, no one will ever know for sure. Peter Brette, the assistant to Michael Matz, who trained Barbaro, recently told The New York Times: "We never knew how good he was. That's the hardest part." But Brette also said he still dreams about Barbaro and sees "all the races he should have won."

Tellingly, Prado also rode Bernardini, the colt who won the Preakness and went on to dominate the 3-year-old season, but the jockey said there was no comparison between the two horses. Bernardini was special but Prado, a slam-dunk future Hall of Famer, had never ridden a horse more gifted than Barbaro.

Those gifts were never more apparent than in the final half mile of the Kentucky Derby. Barbaro had struggled to win his previous race, the Florida Derby, barely beating inferior rivals while being distracted by a strand of TV lights on the finish line. As a result, he wasn't even the betting favorite at the Derby.

But as the horses entered the second turn under a bright blue sky at Churchill Downs, Prado chirped at Barbaro, who was running third, and the colt accelerated with a burst that left even hardened racing observers groping for adjectives. He blew past the front-runners and ran away with a high-stepping gait.

After he crossed the finish line, slowed to a halt and returned to the foot of the grandstand, Prado pointed to the horse, as if to say, "Cheer for him; he's the one who did that."

Gretchen Jackson, who owned Barbaro with her husband, Roy, said at a news conference yesterday that she wished more people remembered their horse for his racing talent.

"We feel in a way that [his Derby win] has been forgotten because of the focus on the remarkable efforts to save him after he was injured," Gretchen Jackson said. "We would love to see him remembered as the horse that won by 6 1/2 lengths here."

But that emotional zenith was traded in for abject despair at the Preakness two weeks later, and the now-famous journey to save Barbaro began.

That journey eventually overwhelmed everything Barbaro had done before, which wasn't and isn't right. He was a champion off the track, but first and foremost, a champion on the track.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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