Issue May 23, 2006

Barbaro: a living flame flickering

Right now, in the days just after Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke down in the opening strides of the Preakness Stakes, we don’t know if the horse will make it or not. Surgery performed at the New Bolton Center for Large Animals at the University of Pennsylvania was pronounced a success, but long months of recovery remain.

Certainly, the charismatic colt who so quickly caught the imagination of sports fans will never race again. Maybe he’ll live to be a stallion. Or even if he could just live, period — that’s all most folks are hoping for. (We kinda think he’ll make it.)

It’s a funny thing about horses. They’re not like people. If it was one of us who had suffered three fractures near an ankle, we’d be wheeled over to the hospital and have every expectation that a skilled surgeon would piece us back together. But horses are different.

They don’t know about doctors and surgery. What they know is if there’s danger, you try to flee. Get away. Run for your life. Something like a cast on your leg. Fight it. Break it. Shake it off — then run for your life. And that’s when they die.

It’s what happened with Ruffian, the ill-fated filly star of 1975 who won her first 10 starts but cracked sesamoid bones and broke down during a match race with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. Ruffian was operated on and everything could have been fine. But when the horse awoke from anesthesia, she shattered her cast, fighting her handlers, trying to “flee.” Ruffian smashed her leg into so many pieces no one could put her back together again.

So there you see the problem. No one knows how Barbaro will handle the immediate shock of surgery, or the critical weeks of recovery when a horse must stand on all four legs to live and breathe. It is a very real danger that a horse may “founder,” with the bones in his hoof simply dissolving by disuse.

But horses can recover.
Like Hoist the Flag, the over-the-winter favorite for the 1971 Kentucky Derby, who cracked and crushed the cannon and long pastern bones in a rear leg, but was saved by surgery. Belmont Park received more than 1,000 get-well letters addressed to Hoist the Flag, and owner Jane Clark answered each with a postcard photo of the horse.

Interestingly, Barbaro is a great-grandson of Hail to Reason, the 2-year-old champion of 1960 who shattered sesamoids in his left front leg on the way to the 1961 Derby. There were no veterinarians available on that Sunday morning at Belmont Park, so owner-trainer Hirsch Jacobs and his son John applied casts themselves (without anesthesia) and nursed the colt through the dangerous days. That first night, daughter Patrice Jacobs sat in the straw in the stall all night and held the horse’s head in her lap.

Really, that’s the best hope for Barbaro, that he’ll make it through the dangerous days and recover to become a stallion — perhaps someday sending Young Barbaro to win the Kentucky Derby.

What was so special about Barbaro?
He was just so different. So powerful. So by himself. His dramatic victory in the 132nd Run for the Roses raised hopes that a new racing star was emerging. That’s why the air crackled with anticipation last Saturday at Pimlico. And Barbaro appeared to be crackling with anticipation, too. He was so ready to go he broke through the starting gate before the race and had to be reloaded.

That happens. Horses can do that. Whether the incident had anything to do with his injury, no one will ever know. Probably not. But soon after the actual start of the race, Barbaro took some kind of a wrong step, cracked his right rear leg in three places, and was immediately pulled up by jockey Edgar Prado.

While the racing world gasped — the public knows horses are fragile — the Preakness continued. And we would like to congratulate Bernardini, who won the Preakness handily. A very nice performance.

But our hearts belonged to Barbaro. The sad thing is Barbaro was suddenly interrupted as he was trying to make history. In just that fateful second I was reminded of a horse of long ago named Graustark. When I was very young, I thought Graustark was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. Graustark didn’t run. He flew like the wind along the track and his feet never touched the dirt.

The previously undefeated son of the undefeated European champion Ribot was nipped in a photo by Abe’s Hope in the 1966 Blue Grass Stakes, and afterwards diagnosed with a leg fracture. Graustark’s injury wasn’t as life threatening as Barbaro’s, but he never raced again, missing his chance at the Kentucky Derby, and probable future showdowns with turf titans Buckpasser, Damascus and Dr. Fager.

At least Barbaro got his Kentucky Derby. And if that’s all there is ever going to be, it is enough.

Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com