Alex Brown knows just where he was in 1977, when he learned of Elvis' demise. And in 1997, when he heard that Princess Diana had died. And on Jan. 29, 2007 — five years ago Sunday — when he got the news that, after a game fight for life, a champion racehorse named Barbaro had passed away.
"You never forget, when an icon goes. The enormity of the occasion is seared in your memory," said Brown, author of the book, Greatness & Goodness: Barbaro and his Legacy.
In hindsight, he said, perhaps no other thoroughbred so captured the country's heart as the undefeated 3-year-old who shattered his leg in 20 places during the 2006 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, and spent the next seven months battling for survival at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center. Visitors, cards, flowers, horse treats and well-wishes flooded the veterinary center and the farm of owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson.
Looking back, Brown said, Barbaro was "a supreme athlete who captured our imagination and showed courage at a time when our human heroes, from Tiger Woods to politicians to CEOs, had become morally bankrupt and were letting us down."
Five years after Barbaro's passing, his trainer, Michael Matz, still has several of his shoes tucked safely away.
"How can I not think of him all of the time?" Matz said. "He brought racing together more than anyone had done in a long time. Barbaro was a fighter, for sure; he just couldn't win that last battle.
"He had so much in front of him yet. Where he would have fit in with other great horses, we'll never know. It's a shame he couldn't have passed his spirit and his will on to (his progeny)."
Instead, says John Eisenberg, what Barbaro left behind was a public awareness that thoroughbreds are more than a gambler's plaything.
"His injury, and the long vigil that followed, was a heart-tugger," said Eisenberg, author of My Guy Barbaro: A Jockey's Journey Through Love, Triumph, and Heartbreak with America's Favorite Horse with jockey Edgar Prado. "For America, it was like sitting up with a sick relative, getting good news and bad, and hoping for the best
"(The episode) Disney-fied the horse and shed light on the fact that racing isn't just about betting, that you have to treat the animals with respect. Goodness knows, racing is still far from perfect, but Barbaro's injury brought a sensitivity to a business in which people are pretty hardcore."
"Thanks to social media, average people could follow that horse and share their sorrows," he said. "Before Barbaro came along, people didn't talk in terms of horse slaughter, or the rescue of retired thoroughbreds, or even about the cause of laminitis, the disease that eventually put him down.
"As short a life as he led, he had a huge impact on the industry. He shifted the needle, and if that's your legacy, you've led a helluva life."