May 15, 2008
When you get into the racing business, you learn not to get too attached to any horse. That's the first commandment. Be careful, you're told, they'll only break your heart. This is a tough, competitive business, not a romance novel. If you're a jockey, just get on them, get off them, and move on.
When Barbaro came along, I broke that commandment, shattered it into a thousand little pieces, like a stone tablet that had been hurled to the ground.
I couldn't just get on Barbaro, get off him, and move on. I loved him too much.
It wasn't just that he did so much for me, taking me to the Kentucky Derby winner's circle for the first time. It was the way he came to me when he saw me, ears pricked, anxious to communicate. It was the warm look in his eyes when he heard my voice. It was his sense of humor, the way he teased me when I fed him a baby carrot, looking away and then swooping back in with a gulp.
Ten days after he injured his right rear leg in the Preakness Stakes, I visited him at the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa. The place was crawling with press, but I went back a few weeks later, early one morning, when no one was around. I wanted to be alone with him.
He was happy. His leg was healing. He was spending his days devouring baby carrots and peppermints, like a horse that was going to survive. It seemed like a fantasy.
But then one day in mid-July, his surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson, dropped a bombshell. Barbaro had developed severe laminitis, a painful and potentially fatal hoof disease.
I had to go see him.
The next day, my wife, Liliana, and I got up at 4 a.m. at our house in New York, near Belmont Park, and drove to Pennsylvania to see Barbaro. The roads were empty. We made great time. I had to be back in New York in time to ride that afternoon.
At New Bolton, we walked in, greeted the staff, put on scrubs and went to see Barbaro in intensive care. I called out when I stepped into his stall, as I had at the start of my previous visits.
"Hey, Barbaro. Hey, fella," I said.
He stared out the window in his stall, refusing to look at me.
"Look here, boy," I said. "I got apples. I got carrots and candy."
Normally, he rushed to greet me, knowing what I had. But this time, he just stared. His silence and stillness gave me chills.
"What's up, boy?" I said softly. "What's the matter? Don't you want something to eat?"
I walked across the room and got in between him and the window, inserting myself into his view like a child wanting attention. He turned from the window and gave me an annoyed look; had he been human he would have said, "Leave me alone, OK?"
There were fiberglass casts on both of his back legs, one protecting the broken leg and the other for his laminitis. He was hooked up to a maze of medicine drips and monitors.
He had been in this room for weeks, and as down as he was about being in pain, I think he was mostly depressed because he felt like a captive.
I held out a baby carrot, his favorite snack. He took it but spit it on the ground.
"Come on, boy," I purred. "This makes you happy."
I held out a red apple, which he usually swallowed whole. He knocked it out of my hand with his nose.
I stared at him. He stared out the window.
"I guess you don't want any company, huh?" I asked.
I walked across the straw floor and out the door, and spoke to one of the nurses.
"Boy, he's not himself," I said.
He obviously was in no mood for company, so I went back to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. I had visited enough that the staff knew me. I sat in the kitchen and talked to them, and then went out to the front desk to talk to the vets and admissions people. I looked over the latest rounds of flowers, get-well cards and stuffed animals that had arrived; they took up an entire hallway.
After an hour, I decided to give the horse another try. I walked over to the ICU, put scrubs back on, and crept into his room. When I said his name, he turned from the window to look at me and pricked his ears. He seemed happier.
"Hey, boy," I said, walking to him. "You're feeling better now?"
When I offered him a carrot, he took it and gulped it. "That's my guy," I said.
He let me pat him and play with his ears, a reminder of the better times we had shared. I had always played with his ears when we were in a post parade before a race.
Soon, he put his head on my shoulder, and I stroked his great muscular neck. After a few minutes, I realized he had fallen asleep. He awoke soon enough, but I spent another hour with him, talking to him and walking him around the room gently and slowly.
Then, suddenly, like a thunderstorm blowing in, his mood changed again, and he was quite clearly finished with the visit. He left me and turned back to his window. I felt like I was in a business meeting with an executive who was suddenly ready for his next appointment. He had had enough.
Liliana and I left and drove back to New York. I was badly shaken by what I had seen. Barbaro had always been so upbeat and feisty. He had made it easy for you to feel good about him and confident about his recovery.
But this time, he was obviously down - very down. I wondered what was going on in his head. Was he in pain? Was he afraid? Did he want to be training and racing? What was he thinking?
He had offered no clues, which was so unlike him. He was just still and silent. That was hard to watch. He showed no emotion at all. It gave me the chills to think about it. If he had made some noise or rolled around or done anything, at least he would have shown some sign of life. But he was as quiet as the sunrise Liliana and I had seen earlier that day.
I prayed it wasn't the last time I would see him, but I wondered how much he could take before he gave in. Between a shattered leg, laminitis and being stuck inside for weeks, he was going through a lot.
"All we can do now is hope and pray," I told reporters later that day. "We're going to need a miracle."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun