How Barbaro's death has changed horse racing

Drug regulation has increased, but some still want one governing body

May 20, 2011|By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun

To Michael Matz, Barbaro's legacy includes a recurring image.

It is of the horse with all four feet off the ground. It is as if Barbaro is flying.

It has been five years since Barbaro shattered a hind leg at the Preakness, beginning a poignant struggle to save the life of the runaway 2006 Kentucky Derby winner. He eventually suffered from laminitis and was euthanized the following January.

At Churchill Downs, where the horse's ashes are buried, there is a bronze statue of Barbaro suspended by a rail so the horse is off the ground — just the way Matz sees him in full sprint in his mind's eye. But the trainer and others believe Barbaro's legacy is more extensive — and more complicated — than the 1,500-pound statue celebrating his breathtaking speed.

"How good a horse was Barbaro? Nobody really knows how good he was because nobody got to see his full potential," said Matz, who still sounds wistful talking about the thoroughbred.

"There are so many things you could say would be his legacy," said Matz, who hopes to again train another horse approaching that class. "You hope maybe lightning will strike twice."

Barbaro's tragic misstep increased awareness of safety issues at tracks. There are ongoing debates about whether 3-year-olds are mature enough to handle Triple Crown races, whether more should be done to curb race-period medicating, and whether a national governing body is needed to ensure rules are standardized across all states.

A number of states, including Maryland, have banned steroids in racing in the past five years. The drugs were not regulated by Maryland as recently as 2008.

"Our industry has always placed a high value on health and safety," said Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, an industry group. "But the high-profile injuries of Barbaro in 2006 and Eight Belles in 2008 provided a catalyst for unprecedented industry cooperation and urgency on these fronts."

But there is also a sense among federal lawmakers and some in the industry of unfinished business. Some question the permitted use — at certain levels — of the anti-inflammatory drug Phenylbutazone (known as bute) and of Lasix, a diuretic.

On May 4, Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, and Rep. Edward Whitfield, a Republican from Kentucky, introduced legislation to halt the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the sport.

"Chemical warfare is rampant on American racetracks, and unlike other countries, our law does not reject this unscrupulous practice," Udall said in a prepared statement. "A racehorse has no choice when it comes to using performance-enhancing drugs, but this legislation takes away that option from those who would subject these magnificent animals to such abuse for gambling profit."

The NTRA has not taken a formal position on the legislation. But Waldrop said: "We do have concerns about the overall characterization of the sport by the authors of the (bill). Horse racing continues to outpace other sports in its drug and medication policies. The winner of every race is subject to drug testing at every track every day in the United States. Non-winning horses are also subject to random drug testing."

NTRA's Safety and Integrity Alliance has been examining everything from riding crops to the manner in which horses are tested for dozens of drugs. So far, the alliance has accredited Pimlico and 19 other tracks, NTRA says.

Matz said he hopes for more consistency in rules from state to state. "I would prefer each state and each racetrack had the same situation," he said. "We have to have one governing body that is in charge of everything. I don't know that you have to get the federal government involved with it — I think they have enough problems. It could be like in football where you have a commissioner."

This time of year, Matz remembers the cards, flowers, horse treats and well-wishes that overwhelmed Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who attended the statue's 2009 unveiling in Kentucky. Also attending was Dean Richardson, the veterinary surgeon who is still based at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, where Barbaro was treated.

"I think you found people following his progress whether they were in the horse business or whatever they were," Matz said of Barbaro. "They were watching and waiting to see if he could get better."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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Where are they now?

•Barbaro's ashes are interred near the main entrance at Churchill Downs, where he won the 2006 Kentucky Derby by 6½-lengths.

•Michael Matz continues to train horses and has retained his association with Barbaro's owners, Gretchen and Roy Jackson. Among the horses he has trained: Nicanor and Lentenor, both full brothers of Barbaro.

•Owners Gretchen and Roy Jackson of Lael Stables in Pennsylvania have been active in promoting health and safety causes in the industry and in cooperating with various media projects on Barbaro's life.

•Dean Richardson, the veterinary surgeon who worked on Barbaro, remains based at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center. The school has a Barbaro Fund to support animal treatment.

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