By Bill Ordine
January 30, 2008
Most will recall that two weeks after his 6 1/2 -length win in the Derby, Barbaro suffered what would prove to be a fatal lower leg injury in the Preakness. It was during his eight-month battle for survival after surgery that his admirers became legion and he came to be "America's horse."
One of the luckiest assignments I've ever had in this business was being told to check in on Barbaro at his Fair Hill training center in northern Maryland immediately after he returned home from the Kentucky Derby. It was the Monday after the Derby, less than 48 hours after Barbaro had flashed across the finish line.
I made a phone call to Fair Hill before leaving The Sun and was told that no one would be allowed to see Barbaro and that his trainer, Michael Matz, would not be available for interviews. It was a nice day, so I made the drive anyway.
In the end, about three or four other reporters had taken the same chance I did, as well as a Sun photographer, and the handful of us enjoyed what amounted to a private audience with a horse who would, in tragedy, become one of the most famous thoroughbreds of all time on what appeared to be one of the most satisfying days of his life.
Barbaro was sassy on his way to the paddock that May day, drawing some gentle words of admonishment from Matz. We all watched quietly as Barbaro grazed and a hawk circled overhead. Later, Matz talked about the quiet peace that Fair Hill afforded Barbaro as he prepared for his chase of the Triple Crown.
The next and last time I saw Barbaro, I was near the finish line at noisy Pimlico Race Course. Then, I was one of hundreds of thousands whose attention was riveted on the spirited bay. One of a small army of Sun reporters covering the race, I had picked my perch carefully by joining a group of photographers because they always know where to stand to get a good look.
Down the track to my left, I saw Barbaro's false start, as everyone else did, and then moments later, I heard the crowd roar as the gates opened. For a few moments, my line of sight was blocked. Then there was the collective gasp, the field of horses rushed by minus the yellow No. 6, and when Barbaro finally passed in front of me, it was with that gruesomely awkward gait and Edgar Prado was dismounting and trying to calm him.
A day or so later, I was part of the tag team of reporters at New Bolton Center in Pennsylvania, where Barbaro was treated, and I interviewed surgeon Dr. Dean Richardson, but I never saw Barbaro again.
Last Jan. 29, after many surgeries and the worsening of a condition known as laminitis, Barbaro was put down.
Since Barbaro's death, other horses have suffered the same fate. Last year on Preakness Day, I witnessed a horse named Mending Fences break down while leading the Dixie Stakes. He was euthanized at Pimlico with far less notice than Barbaro.
Barbaro's death heightened awareness of horse race safety, and some believe synthetic surfaces might prevent similar injuries. But in Southern California at Santa Anita Park, the synthetic surface has had its problems. Recently, the track hasn't drained properly after heavy rains. Santa Anita has already missed a bunch of race dates and will miss a bunch more as the track is worked on to make it safe for horses and jockeys.
You'd like to be able to say Barbaro's accident and passing, and all the attention and emotional reaction that followed, have resulted in a major difference for horse racing. And I suppose medical knowledge was gained by Barbaro's extensive treatment, money has been raised for research, and there is certainly a heightened awareness of safety issues. But the fact remains that the perfect solution remains elusive and more often than anyone would like, horses and riders still suffer.
Seeing through screen play
Yesterday, The Seattle Times published a blistering collection of stories critical of the University of Washington football program run by former Ravens offensive assistant Rick Neuheisel, who is the new head coach at UCLA.
While Washington had a tremendous season in 2000 under Neuheisel, the articles paint an alarming picture of star players routinely running afoul of the law and Neuheisel and athletic department officials doing far too little to rein in the players.
One article was about Jerramy Stevens, now a veteran NFL tight end of modest accomplishment who is probably best remembered by most fans for the handful of passes he dropped in the Super Bowl two years ago while playing for the Seattle Seahawks.
I knew little about Stevens then and felt a little sorry for the guy for lousing up in the biggest game of his life. Here's what I didn't know about the 6-foot-7, 260-pound tight end:
• He had been accused of rape in college and although prosecutors are suspected of using questionable judgment in not charging him, a $300,000 payment was made to the victim years later on behalf of Stevens and a fraternity.
• In high school, he admitted to jumping on an unconscious boy's face, breaking his jaw.
• His vehicle has been involved in at least two hit-and-runs, once striking another vehicle and once slamming into a retirement home.
• He has been picked up for driving on a suspended license twice and once for driving under the influence with a blood-alcohol level of .204, more than twice the legal limit.
Those are the highlights. There's some business about neighbors complaining of being showered with fireworks and vomit, some marijuana use while on home confinement and kicking a high school teammate in the testicles, but those things get lost in the shuffle when someone is as busy as Stevens.
Yet, despite these problems, the Seahawks drafted him in the first round in 2002 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed him as a free agent before last season at a discount rate.
Too bad we all don't know a little bit more about these guys on game day. It would make it easier to know whom to root for and against.
Bill's tube tips
The Terrapins need to rally the same enthusiasm and focus they had in an upset of then-No. 1 North Carolina on Jan. 19 and in the first half in a loss to Duke on Sunday. The Cavaliers (11-7, 1-4) are in last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but they're not pushovers. This is the type of game Maryland (12-8, 2-3) has to win to position itself for March.
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