Tuesday, January 30, 2007

He Won Every Race He Ever Finished

Such a sad story

The Run for the Roses - Barbaro

He always will be remembered when subject is Roses.
New York Daily News

This was a very special horse. He won every one of the races he was able to finish. He won the Kentucky Derby, the only race America cares about. He won important races on the grass and on the dirt. And, yes, of course, he was being compared to the great Secretariat, the too-easy flattery you hear about so many horses. Until they make the serious mistake of finishing second. Barbaro never finished that far back. Not even close.

The Eclipse Awards, given to the outstanding horses and two-legged stars of the previous year, were handed out in Beverly Hills on Jan. 21. Barbaro came up empty. His owners won a special Eclipse for shelling out all that money on what was always a longshot - keeping their horse alive. Dr. Dean Richardson, the veterinarian who operated on Barbaro after the Preakness, and spent almost every day since May 20 visiting his patient, was handed another piece of silver. Barbaro's jockey, Edgar Prado, was another winner.

Prado was crouched on Barbaro's back, a few hundred yards out of the Preakness gate, when he realized the 3-year-old was in trouble. His quick reaction, easing up, surely prevented more serious injuries. Gave us all the chance - because we suspected how special this athlete was - to hope for a happy ending.

After the race, the media crowd was scrambling in the stable area, when the track veterinarian, or maybe a vet with even more initials after his name, finally let us know just how bad it was. By then, Barbaro was on the road, the back of a van, heading for the operating table at New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa., his home for a little more than eight months.

They were nice enough to give us regular updates. Probably because they realized how much people cared. (I mean, how many horses have hundreds of bouquets left for them at the hospital gate?) I was constantly surprised by the number of people, who thought jockeys were something you bought in the underwear aisle, who asked me, "How's that horse doing? He gonna make it?"

Most of the news out of New Bolton was promising. The occasional setbacks were usually accompanied by some piece of optimism. No matter what happened, he would never race again. We knew that. There wasn't much hope that we'd be betting on his sons and daughters some day. All we wanted for him was a pasture to gallop in, and an extra carrot in the feed tub.

But that first Saturday afternoon in May, convinced we had seen greatness, so much more was anticipated. The morning after the Derby, interviewing trainers of the beaten horses (the closest one was 6-1/2 lengths away), collecting superlatives about Barbaro, I left on a path that took me past Barclay Tagg's stable. Tagg won the 2003 Derby with Funny Cide, the New York-bred owned by a bunch of guys from upstate who bought their gelding for $22,000 and caught lightning in a bottle. A beer bottle, it turned out, with Funny Cide on the label.

Tagg got his first look at Barbaro last November, at Laurel, his second race. The horse drew away to win by eight. "He looked like a real machine," Tagg remembered. "Like a Triple Crown winner. I never saw a horse run with such enthusiasm. Not since Secretariat."

Tagg, who saddled his first winner 35 years ago, is one of the most respected horsemen on the Belmont backstretch. If you own a horse and think of him as the next Secretariat you're marked down as a dreamer. If the same praise comes from the guy on the next bar stool it's time to walk away. Tagg doesn't kid.

Now we'll never know. The Derby was his first race in five weeks, an unusually long layoff for a horse trying the Derby's mile and a quarter. A lot of smart horseplayers wrote him off. So the undefeated horse went off at 6-1, the only time in his short life he hadn't been favored, and he won like a 2-5 shot, exactly the odds he was bet down to in the Preakness. When everybody was starting to realize how special he was.

He never made it past the first turn. Two hundred and fifty-six days later, "a vast majority of which he was a happy horse," Richardson said, Barbaro "had a difficult night and he was clearly distressed. We said all along that if we couldn't control his discomfort we wouldn't go on."

Barbaro, heavily tranquilized, was given a massive overdose of an anesthetic that stopped the heart of a horse who won every race he finished.

Originally published on January 30, 2007

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