A spectacular day of racing turned catastrophic when Barbaro, a 3-year-old colt with a seemingly clear path to the Triple Crown, broke down in the first furlong of the 131st Preakness Stakes yesterday and was fighting for his life last night.
Instead of preparing for the Belmont Stakes and immortality in three weeks, Barbaro left Pimlico Race Course about 7:30 p.m. in an equine ambulance, headed for surgery today at the University of Pennsylvania's George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals at the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa.Barbaro suffered fractures above and below his right hind ankle, an injury that at the least ended his racing career and, according to attending veterinarian Dr. Larry Bramlage, was life-threatening.
While trainer Michael Matz and jockey Edgar Prado attended to Barbaro, Bernardini, a lightly raced bay with royal bloodlines, stormed to a 5 1/4-length victory ahead of Sweetnorthernsaint.
As the horrified crowd -- some crying, others screaming -- saw Matz run to Barbaro, one spectator yelled out to Matz, "Don't you dare kill that horse."
Meanwhile, other parts of the record crowd of 118,402, those on the west end of the track, had not seen what happened to Barbaro, and they cheered Bernardini's victory.
Last night at New Bolton, Matz said that doctors had adjusted the splint placed on the horse's leg at Pimlico and that he was "resting comfortably."
"Hopefully, [Sunday] we'll have surgery on his right leg," Matz said.
Bramlage said the injury would require extensive surgery and posed significant risk to the colt's recovery because of blood circulation issues.
"His career is over. This is it for him as a racehorse," Bramlage said shortly before Barbaro left Pimlico. "We're trying to save him as a stallion [for breeding].
"There's some major hurdles here. He has to be stabilized. We're looking at a long surgery that will take hours."
Matz said two surgeons would be performing the surgery: Dr. Dean Richardson, chief of surgery at the New Bolton Center, and Dr. David Nunamaker, chair of the Department of Clinical Studies at New Bolton.
Matz said the injury remains life-threatening because recovery is dangerous.
Bramlage said: "That's an injury you or I would be put in bed for six weeks before we were allowed to walk on it, and that's impossible to do with a horse."
The race got off to an ominous start when Barbaro broke through the starting gate prematurely. Prado slowed him down and circled around to re-enter the gate.
When the race actually started, Barbaro broke slowly from the gate and quickly got into traffic and trouble. When it became apparent to Prado that the horse was injured, he pulled up and jumped off.
Matz rushed to the horse. Prado was on the verge of tears as he told the trainer, "When he broke, he was fine, and then I hear a pop. ... I'm so sorry."
Soon after, the horse's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, arrived on the track while the race was in progress. Gretchen Jackson tried to comfort the crestfallen Prado.
"We didn't expect this," she said later. "You can expect being beaten. You didn't think about this."
Barbaro's injury, just two weeks after he won the Kentucky Derby in dominating fashion, left virtually everyone in shock.
"The whole story is this: Let's just hope Barbaro lives," said Nick Zito, the trainer of third-place finisher Hemingway's Key.
"These things happen that no one can dream of. I had the favorite in the Derby Trial for the [ George] Steinbrenner family, Protagonist. He was perfectly sound, and he broke a sesamoid leaving the gate. That's why I say you have to cherish the moment in racing, because here's a star. Let's just hope everything is OK."
Jeremy Rose, the jockey on Hemingway's Key, found no satisfaction in his third-place finish.
"It is hard to celebrate with what happened to Barbaro when he gets vanned off and it does not look good," he said. "From my vantage point [breaking from the third post], he broke down right next to me, and I saw Edgar pull him up. I thought maybe someone came over [on] him ... but it looked bad."
Mike Trombetta, trainer of Sweetnorthernsaint, said he didn't see Barbaro break down, but he knew instantly something was wrong.
"I knew it was something terrible because Michael Matz came running past me as if the world had ended," he said.
Prado at first declined to talk about the incident but later offered this account:
"When he went to the gate, he was feeling super, and I felt like he was in the best condition for this race. He actually tried to buck me off a couple of times. He was feeling that good. He just touched the front of the doors of the gate and went right through it.
"During the race, he took a bad step, and I can't really tell you what happened. I heard a noise about 100 yards into the race and pulled him right up."
Prado's quick response might well have prevented further damage to Barbaro.
By about 9 p.m., when a caravan of cars with the ambulance arrived at the New Bolton Center, it was met by 15 people who had gathered at the hospital, displaying a sign that said: "Barbaro, we love you" and "good luck wonder horse."
The ambulance pulled around to the back of the hospital to unload Barbaro.
Sean Keeley, 10, who was holding the latter sign, said he came to New Bolton because "when I saw it happen, I felt like I knew what Michael Matz was going through. Something like that happened to one of my horses. I was just so sad that I made this sign and got here as quick as I could."
Sara Richardson, 28, who also was at New Bolton holding a sign, said she was stunned when Barbaro pulled up.
"It was almost like the world stopped," Richardson said. "Our hearts go out to the people close to the horse."
The last horse who had to be destroyed after breaking down in the Preakness was Union City in 1993. Prairie Bayou won the Preakness that year but broke down in the Belmont, in his next race, and had to be put down.
In 1999, after winning both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, Charismatic pulled up lame in the Belmont. He currently stands at stud.
Deaths resulting from catastrophic, fatal injuries suffered at the start of a race are uncommon, according to track statistics that say such deaths occur less than twice per 1,000 starts.
Dr. James M. Casey, a Laurel veterinarian, said the statistic is accurate: "It doesn't happen often, but it does happen. If it happened all the time, who would want to ride?"
It was uncertain whether Bernardini would continue on to the Belmont in three weeks.
Sun reporters Doug Donovan, Sandra McKee and Bradley Olson contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun