Book recalls Barbaro as one of the greatest racers of all time

The legendary colt died of injuries suffered at Preakness

  • Barbaro pulls up lame in front of the grandstand during the 131st running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in 2006.
Barbaro pulls up lame in front of the grandstand during the 131st… (DOUG KAPUSTIN, Baltimore…)
May 20, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

It's been five years since the spectacular turf superstar Barbaro shattered his right hind leg in the 2006 Preakness Stakes as horrified racegoers and the world looked on in disbelief.

Alex Brown, an exercise rider, assistant trainer, author and New York Times correspondent for the racing column The Rail, has chronicled the all-too-brief life of the horse who most certainly would have thundered his way into Triple Crown and racing history. His recently published "Greatness and Goodness: Barbaro and his Legacy" is a 235-page, lavishly illustrated book.

And even though we know how this sad story ends, Brown's book is a page-turner, a result of hundreds of interviews he conducted with people who were part of the Barbaro story or were affected by it.

Brown has written an intimate, detailed and compelling account of Barbaro from the moment of his birth to the heart-stopping moment when, in a blowout Kentucky Derby, he left 19 of his fellow 3-year-old colts eating his dust, taking the race by 61/2 lengths.

Then came the tragic accident at Pimlico, followed by the valiant attempt to save his life and his death after an eight-month struggle at the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa.

Brown, a native of Cheshire, England, who lives in Lincoln University, Pa., was speaking last week about his book before a rapt audience at The Ivy Bookshop on Falls Road.

Brown spoke of the young foal, named by owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson after one of their foxhounds, who from his earliest days demonstrated great promise.

Barbaro was born in 2003 at Sanborn Chase in Nicholasville, Ky., where trainer Bill Sanborn and night watchman Irvin White assisted in his birth.

Sanborn told Brown that after his birth, the colt quickly rose to his feet and demonstrated from his earliest days the "three attributes that are critical for a young horse with aspirations to be a great racehorse: mind and attitude; interaction in the field; and physical presence."

And "Barbaro, from the beginning, clearly exhibited all three," as well as an incredible athleticism, balance and intelligence, he told Brown.

"A nervous horse that gets overanxious in the paddock, or post parade, may not conserve its energy for its race," wrote Brown. "Not Barbaro."

Barbaro's first race was Oct, 4, 2005, at Delaware Park. He easily won, completing the mile in 1:35.87 and the last quarter of a mile, which proved to be his fastest time, in 23.66 seconds.

Owner Gretchen Jackson was cautious when Barbaro's trainer, Michael Matz, suggested the colt had the talent and ability to be a Kentucky Derby contender.

If Jackson and her husband had any doubts, they were quickly erased when Barbaro, in his second start at the Laurel Futurity on Nov. 19, 2005, won the race by eight lengths with a time of 1:40 for the mile and 1/16, traveling over the last quarter-mile in 12 seconds and setting a course record.

"Aside from Barbaro's Kentucky Derby win, many consider that his victory in the Laurel Futurity, in only his second start, was his most impressive race," wrote Brown. "Barbaro's performance certainly indicated that he was a 2-year-old with a lot of upside."

As 2006 began, Barbaro was not about to be stopped as he won the Tropical Park Derby, Holy Bull and the Florida Derby, arriving at Churchill Downs undefeated.

Brown told his audience at The Ivy that Barbaro's win at Churchill Downs that afternoon was the largest winning margin in 60 years.

Barbaro galloped the last quarter-mile in 24 seconds — the fastest since Secretariat in 1973, said Brown, adding that jockey Eric Prado never had to resort to his stick.

"How often do you see that," he said the other evening.

More than 118,000 fans jammed Pimlico on May 20, 2006, for the Preakness to witness Barbaro take home the Woodlawn Vase.

It was not to be.

"The worst possible scenario unfolded. Barbaro broke down in his right hind leg and was eased by Prado only an eighth of a mile into the race," Brown wrote.

"To describe this as tragic would not do justice to the situation. Everyone was anticipating crowning a champion, an unbeaten horse that appeared to be just that — unbeatable," he wrote. "Sadly, everyone was wrong."

Sandra McKee, a veteran sports reporter who covered the race for The Baltimore Sun, told Brown that Prado got off Barbaro "right where I was. He was trying to soothe him, hold him still in position. It was such a frightening scene for any animal lover. … Prado was just crestfallen. He was emotionally broken. It was awful."

Radiographs showed three injuries: a condylar fracture to the cannon bone, a shattered long pastern bone and a fractured seismoid.

Dr. Dean Richardson headed the surgical team that operated on Barbaro the next day at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center.

Richardson's worst fear — that Barbaro's recovery would be threatened by laminitis, a disease that experts have been trying to understand for 2,000 years — came to pass. It is the second-largest equine killer after colic.

It is an inflammation of the laminae, "which are thin, intricately folding, interlocking sheets of tissue that connect the coffin bone (the last bone of the foot) to the hoof wall (outside of the foot)," Brown wrote.

Eventually, the disease spread to all of Barbaro's legs, which led to his euthanization on Jan. 29, 2007.

Brown told his listeners Tuesday evening that it wouldn't be a stretch to put Barbaro in the same class as a Dan Patch or Man o' War.

In 2009, Barbaro's ashes and a bronze statue were placed at Churchill Downs. He was the first horse to be buried there.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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