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Remembering Barbaro 10 Years Later

Remembering Barbaro 10 Years Later by Jordan Sigmon: Ten years ago on the first Saturday in May, we saw a performance that brought up talk of another Triple Crown winner when Barbaro streaked under the Twin Spires in a Kentucky Derby tour de force. But, just two short weeks later, all of our hopes and dreams came crashing down in a matter of seconds. Only a few hundred yards out of the gate, Barbaro broke down, shattering his right hind leg.

Barbaro

Fans pay tribute to Barbaro with red roses at Churchill Downs during the 142nd Running of the Kentucky Derby on May 7, 2016.
Photo: Casey Laughter Photography

Unlike many horses who have been touted as possible Triple Crown winners over the years, Barbaro came from rather modest beginnings. A homebred for Roy and Gretchen Jackson’s Lael Stables, Barbaro was trained by Olympian Michael Matz. Though Matz was not yet a big name in the racing industry, he was well-known in the show jumping world.

Barbaro’s career began on the turf at Delaware Park in a one-mile maiden special weight on October 4, 2005. Not favored and not necessarily expected to win, Barbaro put on a show in the stretch and came home 8½ lengths the best. The next step for the budding star was stakes company in the listed Laurel Futurity at 1-1/16 miles on the turf. Again, Barbaro made his presence known and finished eight lengths clear of the second-place finisher in a sharp final time of 1:40.17. The Laurel Futurity was the final start of Barbaro’s brief, but brilliant, two-year-old season.

On January 1, 2006, the universal birthday for all thoroughbreds in the Northern Hemisphere, Barbaro started in the Grade III Tropical Park Derby at Calder, stretching out to 1⅛ miles. Sent off as the 2-5 favorite, Barbaro did not disappoint and went on to win comfortably by 3¾ lengths. It was clear that the Dynaformer colt was immensely talented, so his connections took a risk and opted to switch him to dirt in hopes of making the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.

Barbaro’s dirt debut came in the Grade III Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park, which was then run at 1⅛ miles. The track came up sloppy that day, a condition to which turf-to-dirt horses tend to adapt well. Barbaro took to the surface just fine, holding off a furious late charge from Great Point to prevail by ¾-lengths. As good as he was in the Holy Bull, many still questioned whether or not the promising colt would be just as good on a fast track. Barbaro quickly laid to rest those doubts with a tenacious victory over Sharp Humor by half a length in the Grade I Florida Derby.

Barbaro

Barbaro was not the Kentucky Derby favorite despite his undefeated record.
Photo: Casey Laughter Photography

Then, it was time for the Run for the Roses, but Barbaro was not the favorite despite his undefeated record. That role belonged to the runaway Illinois Derby victor Sweetnorthernsaint, with Barbaro sent off as the second choice. His superiority, however, was crystal clear at the top of the stretch when he spurted away from the field in an instant. His turn of foot was so powerful, magical even, as he dusted his rivals by 6½ lengths. No one thought there was a three-year-old in the nation that could even come close to him; another Triple Crown winner seemed to be a sure thing at this point. But, you know what they always say in horse racing: “There’s no such thing as a sure thing.” Boy, were they right about this one.

May 20, 2006, is a day not soon to be forgotten and a day that still haunts horsemen and fans alike. Everything was going just fine until they loaded into the gates. Anxious to run, Barbaro broke through the gates before the race began. Unscathed and calmed down, he was reloaded, and they were all set for the 131st Preakness Stakes. Not long after the start, it was clear something was very, very wrong, and Edgar Prado pulled Barbaro up as fast as he could. The colt appeared to have severely injured his right hind leg, not bearing any weight on the limb. X-Rays revealed that he had broken his leg above and below the ankle. For many horses, the injury would be an immediate death sentence, but the Jacksons weren’t giving up on Barbaro anytime soon. Barbaro was rushed to the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center for emergency surger, in hopes to save his life

When the surgery was complete, 27 screws and a stainless steel plate had been used to put his leg back together. Recovery was going very well for Barbaro until the first week of July. An abscess in his uninjured left hind leg quickly turned into acute laminitis, a frequently fatal disease. Drastic measures were taken to prevent the condition from worsening as 80% of his left hind foot was removed. Barbaro was now left with casts on both hind legs and spent the better part of his days in a sling to keep the weight off of them. Slowly but steadily, Barbaro recovered. On August 15, Barbaro was able to graze outside for the first time since his accident, and on December 12, the cast was removed from his right hind leg. Things were looking up, but on January 29, 2007, Barbaro developed severe laminitis in both front legs, thus preventing him from being able to bear weight comfortably on any of his four legs. He was humanely euthanized around 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time that day. He was soon cremated, and his remains were laid to rest at Churchill Downs, the scene of his greatest victory.

Throughout his recovery, children and families across the nation sent him get well soon cards and treats. He wasn’t just a horse; he was the hope of an entire nation. Barbaro updates became a regular on many news channels as everyone was hoping and praying that he would pull through. For most, his death hit hard, but the legacy he left behind is like none other. He brought together our sport and united a nation. Everyone just wanted Barbaro to be okay. He taught us to hope again, and his memory will last forever. He will always hold a special place in my and many others’ hearts. Thank you, Barbaro, you were and always will be a great champion.

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