Cause lives on

O, BY THE WAY

Race to improve safety far from finish

On Barbaro's legacy

January 30, 2008|By BILL ORDINE

The owners of Barbaro announced yesterday, on the anniversary of his death, that the ashes of the colt who became a symbol of courage and perseverance for many will be buried at Churchill Downs, the site of his 2006 Kentucky Derby win.

Most will recall that two weeks after his 6 1/2 -length win in the Derby, Barbaro suffered what would prove to be a fatal lower leg injury in the Preakness. It was during his eight-month battle for survival after surgery that his admirers became legion and he came to be "America's horse."

One of the luckiest assignments I've ever had in this business was being told to check in on Barbaro at his Fair Hill training center in northern Maryland immediately after he returned home from the Kentucky Derby. It was the Monday after the Derby, less than 48 hours after Barbaro had flashed across the finish line.

I made a phone call to Fair Hill before leaving The Sun and was told that no one would be allowed to see Barbaro and that his trainer, Michael Matz, would not be available for interviews. It was a nice day, so I made the drive anyway.

In the end, about three or four other reporters had taken the same chance I did, as well as a Sun photographer, and the handful of us enjoyed what amounted to a private audience with a horse who would, in tragedy, become one of the most famous thoroughbreds of all time on what appeared to be one of the most satisfying days of his life.

Barbaro was sassy on his way to the paddock that May day, drawing some gentle words of admonishment from Matz. We all watched quietly as Barbaro grazed and a hawk circled overhead. Later, Matz talked about the quiet peace that Fair Hill afforded Barbaro as he prepared for his chase of the Triple Crown.

The next and last time I saw Barbaro, I was near the finish line at noisy Pimlico Race Course. Then, I was one of hundreds of thousands whose attention was riveted on the spirited bay. One of a small army of Sun reporters covering the race, I had picked my perch carefully by joining a group of photographers because they always know where to stand to get a good look.

Down the track to my left, I saw Barbaro's false start, as everyone else did, and then moments later, I heard the crowd roar as the gates opened. For a few moments, my line of sight was blocked. Then there was the collective gasp, the field of horses rushed by minus the yellow No. 6, and when Barbaro finally passed in front of me, it was with that gruesomely awkward gait and Edgar Prado was dismounting and trying to calm him.

A day or so later, I was part of the tag team of reporters at New Bolton Center in Pennsylvania, where Barbaro was treated, and I interviewed surgeon Dr. Dean Richardson, but I never saw Barbaro again.

Last Jan. 29, after many surgeries and the worsening of a condition known as laminitis, Barbaro was put down.

Since Barbaro's death, other horses have suffered the same fate. Last year on Preakness Day, I witnessed a horse named Mending Fences break down while leading the Dixie Stakes. He was euthanized at Pimlico with far less notice than Barbaro.

Barbaro's death heightened awareness of horse race safety, and some believe synthetic surfaces might prevent similar injuries. But in Southern California at Santa Anita Park, the synthetic surface has had its problems. Recently, the track hasn't drained properly after heavy rains. Santa Anita has already missed a bunch of race dates and will miss a bunch more as the track is worked on to make it safe for horses and jockeys.

You'd like to be able to say Barbaro's accident and passing, and all the attention and emotional reaction that followed, have resulted in a major difference for horse racing. And I suppose medical knowledge was gained by Barbaro's extensive treatment, money has been raised for research, and there is certainly a heightened awareness of safety issues. But the fact remains that the perfect solution remains elusive and more often than anyone would like, horses and riders still suffer.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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