It has been an incredibly sad week for horse lovers and horse-race enthusiasts, as the Kentucky Derby winner and legend-in-the-making Barbaro left the Preakness Stakes in an equine ambulance.
I once met a man who said he loves to place bets. He bets on everything from baseball to billiards, but he said, “I can tell you one thing I ain’t never gonna bet on. Horses. They can’t tell you when they ain’t feelin’ so great.”
A bad sign. This man’s comment came back to me in force when I watched Barbaro break through the starting gate prior to the official start of the second race in the Triple Crown run. Like millions of others who were watching, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was an ominous sign as the track crew turned this beautiful, high-spirited bay around, placing him in the starting gate once again.
It was early in the race, just a few hundred yards after the field of nine horses broke through the starting gate, when cheers were suddenly silenced as Barbaro was pulled back under the guidance of jockey Edgar Prado. The impressive colt was obviously favoring his right rear leg, pulling it up off the ground. The leg seemed to move in a grotesque manner, turning onlookers’ cheers to tears.
A bad word. Fracture is a word no one wants to even breathe at a moment such as this, but it was a scene which brought that dreaded word to mind.
Trainer Michael Matz, watching with his family in the stands, bolted on to the track and embraced Prado. The emotion was heavy, sorrow-filled, hard to bear.
This gloriously beautiful, unbeaten 3-year-old has been such a joy to watch, setting himself far above the others in one of the largest Kentucky Derby line-ups in history. Barbaro was so heavily favored to win the Preakness that betting was amazingly lopsided across the nation. His ability to win the Triple Crown was not even being questioned, but happily anticipated, by the horse-loving crowd.
A sad scene. The horrifying scene – people of all ages crying in the grandstands – played out as the horse race continued, with the lightly-raced Bernardini crossing the finish line in a highly subdued arena.
The highly-favored young Barbaro, still wanting desperately to run a race, had to be sedated and his injured leg placed in an inflatable cast so that veterinarians could determine the extent of his injury.
When it was determined the horse’s injuries involved both a fracture above and a fracture below the ankle, hope was dashed. The double fracture, later learned to be a triple fracture, dashed any glimmer of optimism. Barbaro suffered a broken cannon bone above the ankle and a broken sesamoid bone and broken pastern bone below the ankle, plus a dislocated fetlock or ankle joint.
It is a hard thing to witness, painful to think about. Matz initially declined to speak with the media and I found myself hoping his privacy could be respected as he grapples with the heartbreak of such a defining moment in this horse’s life, and in his own.
A sad world. There will be other races, but there will never be another Barbaro. This is the sad and heavy realization in such a pivotal moment, a moment that horse lovers everywhere dread beyond words.
The only way to avoid such heartbreak, my father used to say, would be to turn a cold heart to all living things. Sorrow comes with the turf of caring for the animals who make our world complete.
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