It has been 10 years since Barbaro, the undefeated Kentucky Derby winner, broke down after coming out of the starting gate at the beginning of the Preakness Stakes, the start of a heart-tugging/heart-breaking drama that played out over the next eight months, and in some ways it seems longer than a decade and some ways much, much shorter.
True, a lot has happened since in horse racing. American Pharoah won a Triple Crown. In 2008, Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, only to be eased in the Belmont. In 2012, I’ll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to be scratched the day before the Belmont. Barbaro’s trainer, Michael Matz, no longer trains horses for Barbaro’s owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson. Another unbeaten Derby champion, Nyquist, will try to win the Preakness on Saturday. Time keeps on ticking, ticking into the future.
I was there that surreal day at Pimlico and if you asked me what I remember, now 10 years later, a couple of scenes stand out -- in addition to the one in which w were waiting outside Barbaro’s barn as the van was being loaded to take the injured horse to the New Bolton Center, a veterinary clinic in Pennsylvania, while overhead planes circled with banners touting free drinks at a local “entertainment” establishment.
The first was Barbaro breaking through the starting gate before the race had even started. Not sure I had seen that before in a live setting, certainly not in a Triple Crown race. But after being loaded into the gate, as he waited for his competitors to be loaded, Barbaro could wait no longer. Whether he was spooked – some believe Barbaro reacted to hearing the gates close on Diabolical, a hard-to-handle horse who was loaded into a stall with the front gate open -- or he was overly charged-up for the race, or whatever, he somehow muscled on through the front doors and continued a few yards down the track before being pulled up by jockey Edgar Prado, turned around and ultimately reloaded in the chute.
At the time, it felt and looked odd, but I’m not sure you saw it as a harbinger of the tragedy to come. As soon as the field was in the gate, and the bells rang and the doors opened and Barbaro had settled into his stride, this time for real, only to be pulled up for obviously terrible reasons – his right hind leg broken in 20 places -- the screaming started.
That’s the second thing I remember, though at the time I didn’t write about that, or at least not as much as I should have. To watch the race, I had found an opening just down from the starting gate where Mike Battaglia, the odds-maker for Keeneland and Churchill, then a television analyst for NBC, was watching the race on a television monitor. Battaglia was standing behind me, and as soon as it became obvious what had happened, that Barbaro was injured, he cursed. I wrote about that and took some flak for it, and Mike wasn’t happy, and I didn’t necessarily blame him (though he was nice about it, because he is a nice guy) and over the years I’ve come to regret writing it the way I did.
One reason I regret it is that now, 10 years later, Mike’s reaction is not what I remember from that day as much as I remember the reaction of a fan, a woman, on the front row in the grandstand. Upon seeing Barbaro injured, she just kept screaming. She wouldn’t stop screaming. It was a frightening, terrifying, piercing blood-curdling scream. It was the scream of a woman who loves horses and couldn’t stand to see one, especially a great one, hurt. I can still hear that scream.
Ultimately, this was a story without a happy ending. Despite the best efforts of the veterinarians at New Bolton, the efforts of the Jacksons and the tens of thousands who sent letters and prayers to Barbaro, nature took its course and, ultimately, the horse. Laminitis, a painful hoof inflammation, developed in his hind hooves in part because Barbaro couldn’t put equal weight on all four legs. When the inflammation spread to the front hooves, the Jacksons decided enough suffering was enough.
Barbaro didn’t die in vain, however. The general public learned the lengths to which, both medical and financial, people will take to save a horse. It learned about laminitis. It learned of the connection people can have with a horse they did not know or never saw in person or never would see.
Still, that was a surreal and bad day at Pimlico 10 years ago. I remember.