The death of a thoroughbred racehorse is never less than heartbreaking. The horses are magnificent athletes, bred to race, with muscular torsos perched on sinewy legs. They instinctively give their all. They deserve good fortune but don't always get it.
Barbaro was an example of the breed at its finest - fleet, smart, calm, competitive. He had never lost a race when his right hind leg bones shattered into what one observer called "essentially a bag of crushed ice" early in the Preakness on May 20.
It was Barbaro's brilliance that encouraged millions to indulge in the fantasy that he could survive his catastrophic injury - a fantasy that played out for almost 37 weeks, until he was euthanized yesterday morning at the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa.
Like many people, I wanted to believe in the hopeful signs that kept coming - the upbeat daily bulletins about peppermints and flowers, new casts, a horse feeling frisky. But I kept hearing the voices of the Maryland horse breeders and farm owners I had interviewed in the days after the Preakness. None was optimistic about Barbaro's making it.
Horse people knew better than to get their hopes up. They're accustomed to these situations. They see them clinically as well as emotionally. They knew what it meant that a surgeon had needed 27 screws to put a horse's leg back together. It meant the odds of survival were lower than the 50-50 figure being circulated. There was a heightened risk of infection, circulatory trouble and other ailments, not to mention the extreme precariousness of the rebuilt bone structure itself. Barbaro had a lot to overcome.
But while the horse breeders and farm owners weren't encouraged about his prospects, they were thrilled and proud that his owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, were endeavoring to save him at any cost - and quite a cost at that. They saw it as a positive development for their industry's image and self-respect that a horse's welfare was being put ahead of all other considerations. It doesn't always happen.
"We just reached a point where it was going to be difficult for him to go on without pain," co-owner Roy Jackson said yesterday. "It was the right decision; it was the right thing to do. We said all along if there was a situation where it would become more difficult for him then it would be time."
In the end, the horse breeders and farm owners were right that Barbaro had too much to overcome. They were right not to have gotten their hopes up. And they were right to feel good about the Jacksons doing everything they could to save him. That was noble.
There is never solace to be gleaned from a racehorse's death, but it can be said that everything about Barbaro's injury was sad except for the attempt to save him.
"You have to give Roy and Gretchen Jackson credit. They spared no expense trying to save him," retired Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey said.
All too often, injured horses aren't kept alive because they can no longer make money racing or at stud, and considering the high price of life in such situations (one horseman told me it cost $5,000 just to walk through the door at New Bolton), they don't make economic sense. Cold but true.
"A lot of times, owners might have the same intent [as the Jacksons], but it's just not doable," Bailey said.
It was doable for the Jacksons because Roy's grandfather was the treasurer of Standard Oil, and money was no object. Thanks to that money, the Jacksons' inherent humanity could be displayed.
If Barbaro had been put down on the track at Pimlico after the Preakness, millions of traumatized viewers might never have watched another horse race. The Jacksons made sure it didn't happen then or ever until Barbaro's condition became so grave there was no alternative.
The attempt to save him was never motivated by the thought that Barbaro might recover and have a lucrative stud career; even fully repaired, his injured leg probably never would have been strong enough to bear his weight. The best-case scenario was he would live as a pasture horse.
But the Jacksons wanted to keep him alive because they loved him, simple as that, and because he had run his heart out for them and won a lot of races. They felt he deserved every chance to live, whatever that entailed.
Was the effort worth it? Some might wonder now that Barbaro didn't make it, but Bailey is among those who sees the larger picture. Yes, it was worth it, he said, and "I encourage everyone in and outside of our industry to keep trying to come up with a solution" to the problem of not saving injured horses.
The odds of Barbaro's making it were long all along, probably longer than anyone wanted to admit. But the effort to beat those odds will define this story as much as Barbaro's legacy as a Kentucky Derby champion.