Emotional rescue

Courage shown by Barbaro and handlers lives on one year later

May 19, 2007|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Reporter

The images will return today like snapshots from a funeral: Barbaro breaking through the gate prematurely. Barbaro breaking down in the first furlong. Crestfallen jockey Edgar Prado in tears. Barbaro being hauled away from Pimlico Race Course in an ambulance as night closed in.

One more time, the nation's racing fans - along with many who are not - will mourn the loss of a champion. One more time, they will remember the moment, the ordeal and the bitter end.

"What I loved was seeing Michael Matz run over and give the jockey a hug," Aynsley Smith, a sport psychologist for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said of the moment. "That was saying, `We're both heartbroken about this.' There was no finger blame. I saw integrity oozing out of both of them.

"The jockey got the right signals to his brain to stop the horse. I saw in the horse this courageous response. He stood there and allowed himself to be cared for at that time. I just thought, what a team. It was just one of those moments in sport when you see things done really well, the way they should be."

In the sport of kings, Smith said she saw "three kings" handle the worst kind of adversity at last year's Preakness.

Through the next eight months, racing fans and horse lovers bonded with Barbaro as he endured multiple surgeries and severe laminitis and ultimately died.

The long journey started with a tragic misstep in the Preakness and ended in virtue for the participants. There were the compassionate owners, Gretchen and Roy Jackson; and the venerated surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson, who battled to save Barbaro's life. There was Matz, the trainer; Prado and Barbaro, all sheathed in honor.

"When it initially happened, I thought it would be a devastating blow to horse racing, yet another high-profile injury to a beloved racehorse," said Randy Moss, ESPN's horse racing analyst.

"But as the days and weeks and months dragged on, it became apparent that the connections of Barbaro and Dr. Dean Richardson were so single-mindedly devoted to the horse that it showed people around the country ... that these horses are more than financial tools, and that owners do treat their horses like family pets."

Shades of Ruffian

For writer William Nack, the unfolding Barbaro saga restored for him what had been lost with the death of Ruffian, an unbeaten filly, in 1975. Nack, who wrote for Sports Illustrated for more than 25 years, was at Belmont Park the day Ruffian broke down. He also was in the stands at Pimlico last year when Barbaro was injured.

"Ruffian's death kind of stripped the romance of the sport for me," said Nack, who is retired and recently published the book Ruffian: A Race Track Romance. "It was so chilling and so horrible to see this magnificent animal like this, bleeding badly, one foot in ice. ... I think it turned a lot of people away from the sport.

"For Barbaro, I think his experience was very positive for people. I think people loved how much care was given to this horse and how hard people tried to save him. They saw that no expense was spared, and that he really was a loved animal. I think people thought, `This sport has a lot of nice people in it. They gave him a real chance and the owners obviously care.' "

What's more, Nack believes Barbaro's ordeal has resulted in a surge of popularity for the Triple Crown, if not racing itself.

"The reason why ratings for the [Kentucky] Derby were up [8 percent] this year is because of Barbaro," he said. "People wanted to see replays of his victory. They thought, `I kind of like racing.' "

Outpouring of concern

Steve Danish of Richmond, Va., is another sport psychologist who was struck by the emotional reaction to Barbaro. Even though he is not a race fan, he couldn't help but notice.

"The outpouring of concern sometimes bordered on amazement to me," he said. "Sometimes it was so overwhelming. I don't know that a well-known person would have gotten any more attention for his or her illness than Barbaro did."

Danish attributes some of that to the courage Barbaro showed in dealing with his many problems.

"That probably is a very critical element," he said. "We would all like to be courageous when we have a serious injury or illness like that. I'm not sure we all would be that courageous."

Ruffian broke down July 6, 1975, in her match race with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. Surgery was performed that day on her broken right foreleg. She was euthanized a day later after the anesthesia wore off and she thrashed about in her padded recovery stall, causing more damage to the leg.

Barbaro responded to his surgery much better. Would it have made a difference if Barbaro had been put down within days of the injury, instead of eight months later after an epic struggle?

"It definitely would have changed the dynamic," ESPN's Moss said. "It wouldn't have given the sport a chance to show its humane side, to show its caring side, as the Jacksons did.

"If he had been put down the day of the race or the day after, it would've been viewed as a tragedy, and we'd still be talking about him. But not in the same terms."

Replays, but how many?

NBC, which broadcasts the Preakness Stakes, and ESPN will both set the stage today. There will be replays of last year and images that will return.

"There's a fine line there," said Neal Pilson, a consultant who once directed Triple Crown coverage while president of CBS Sports. "They're going to remind everyone this is the drama from a year ago. They will do interviews with the trainer, the jockey and so forth. At the same time, they don't want to take away from the coverage for the current event."

How many times might they show the breakdown?

"Once or twice," Pilson said. "Not a lot. You want to remind people, but you don't want to dwell on it."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Kevin Van Valkenburg contributed to this article.

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