This is a bittersweet Preakness weekend for me for sure. Since my birthday (17th) falls on the week of the Preakness, I'm usually celebrating with a watch party or even attending the race in Baltimore (about to fly northeast for the second year in a row). Not to mention my four year consecutive streak of cashing Preakness exotic bets - truly a rarity with my unorthodox handicapping skills. Although when I ran into Jerry Bailey last year at DFW airport during weather delays, he touted Paddy O'Prado and Schoolyard Dreams (6th and 9th), so it really made me feel good to out-handicap a Hall of Fame jockey!
But May 20th marks a somber day in racing history as the day Barbaro broke down in the Preakness Stakes. It happened soon after the race began but after he eerily charged through the starting gate prior to the official start, perhaps an omen that something was amiss. I was watching the race in a Denton, TX hotel room running late for a wedding ceremony, but wanted to watch the race first. I had no money riding on this Preakness as I blew my budget betting against Barbaro two weeks earlier. On Preakness day, he was understandably bet all the way down to odds on (.50-1). I could not let go of the magnitude of Barbaro's courageous battle until the crushing news of his death came on January 29th of the following year.
A Google search today (May 19, 2011) revealed the following number of results for various horses who ran within a few years time-span of Barbaro; Curlin – 474,000 (2 time Horse of the Year), Smarty Jones – 235,000 (Champion 3YO), Afleet Alex – 72,700 (Champion 3YO), Barbaro – 7.220 million (or 100 times the activity of Afleet Alex for a horse that wasn’t even voted champion 3YO – that honor went to Bernardini). So there is no doubt that the relevance of Barbaro that I mentioned in my original tribute below has stood the test of time.
Barbaro – Champion Hero
January 30, 2007
The memory is still vivid in our minds from May 20, 2006, when Barbaro’s right hind leg flared out awkwardly as Edgar Prado dismounted to steady the ailing horse with a look of panic. The debate began promptly at that moment.
“Horse racing is a cruel sport. The industry doesn’t do enough to protect the animals. The breed is becoming compromised and genetically flawed to focus on speed. The only reason anyone cares about horseracing is to gamble.”
The debate has been brewing over the eight months since. But that has always occurred after major high-profile breakdowns (see Ruffian, Go For Wand, Charismatic). What hasn’t always happened is the continuation of the story remaining an attention getter and the focus on medical care and equipment. For weeks after the breakdown, I logged onto the forum at usatoday.com and other sites until I became frustrated with unemployed nut-job websurfers making outlandish statements about Barbaro to get attention. But the story occasionally resurfaced on major outlets, such as the evening national news and ESPN’s Sportscenter. Barbaro would be the first topic my fiancé and I would discuss for more than a month (I have the pleasure of introducing the world of horse racing to Carly!).
After a severe bout with laminitis (hoof circulation problems), there was steady progression and positive reports flowing out of Pennsylvania, even a picture or two of Barbaro grazing in a pasture like any other ordinary horse. Yet Barbaro was anything but ordinary. He was a rock star with four legs and a tail. He probably got more fan mail than Ryan Seacrest. He was wildly popular with little girls and their mom’s and dad’s to boot.
And this was all without even being the best three year-old colt in the nation. That honor goes to Bernardini, and deservedly so. What bothers me in situations like these (i.e. injury or death of a budding superstar) is that the media (and often owners and trainers -- in Smarty Jones’ case) try to make a case that this horse or that horse “could have been the greatest” had it not been for the injury. These grandstanding comments take away from what the horse was or achieved during their racing life. Barbaro had one of the most impressive Kentucky Derby wins ever. Period. That is a unique statement that many “greats” cannot claim. No more needs to be stated with regards to would’ve could’ve with this horse, for his legacy has and will continue to be brighter than Funny Cide, Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex all put together. We don’t necessarily have to have a Triple Crown Champion to keep the Sport of Kings afloat as long as we are blessed with a Barbaro every few decades.
Sometimes the true measure of a champion is not in the countless victories, but the rare defeats. Barbaro’s death proves that he was indeed a blood and flesh specimen and not the indestructible force we all hoped for. Not everyone wants to let go. La Ville Rouge, Barbaro’s dam, remains pregnant at Mills Ridge Farm in Lexington with a full brother to Barbaro. This highly anticipated foal is expected in early spring. But folks, this isn’t cloning. It was something much more than chromosomes and physical attributes that made Barbaro special, it was his spirit and fortitude that set him apart.
Upon Secretariat’s death, his vet performed an autopsy that explained how he was so far superior to his competition… his heart was nearly twice the size of an average thoroughbred’s heart and was thus able to pump more oxygen throughout his body. If we were able to peak under those rippled muscles of Barbaro’s exterior, I’m sure we would find a plethora of fortitude.
Fortitude binds the will firmly to the good of reason in the face of the greatest evils, and the most fearful of all bodily evils is death. And so the very idea of fortitude presupposes that there are certain things we should love more than our own lives, certain things we ought to be willing to die for. – McManaman, Douglas. "The Virtue of Fortitude" (February 2006)