Preakness 2016:

Ten years later, remembering Barbaro and his legacy

Remembering Barbaro 10 years after his Preakness injury.

Ten years later, it remains the most haunting image in Preakness history — that titan of a horse tentatively jabbing his right hind leg at the dirt, realizing the shattered limb would not bear his weight.

Moments earlier, jockey Edgar Prado had pulled Barbaro up before he could really get started trying to win the second leg of a potential Triple Crown.

"An astonishing development!" announcer Tom Durkin boomed on NBC, as the broadcast cut to a shot of the Kentucky Derby champion jogging raggedly on three legs. The crowd of 128,643 fell into a nervous collective murmur, barely cheering when Bernardini won the race.

With a single misstep, Barbaro's career as a great racehorse ended, and he became a surgical patient, fighting for his life as sports fans around the world watched.

Nearly a decade after his death, he lives on in the minds of those who loved him and those who agonized through his daily struggle for survival.

They remember the tears spilled when he came to his end on a grim January morning. But more than that, they remember his magnificent power as he crossed the wire 6½ lengths ahead of his closest competitor in the Kentucky Derby. They remember the monumental efforts to save him, by one of the best veterinary surgeons in the world and by the owners who doted on him like a fifth child. They remember the bond he symbolized, between animals and those who care for them.

"It was all a remarkable period of time," says Alex Brown, a former exercise rider at Fair Hill who built an online community of thousands that came to be known as the Fans of Barbaro. "Barbaro really did capture the hearts of a nation, and all he wanted to do was to live out his life."

The great horse bestowed some practical gifts on the racing world, such as the millions of dollars donated in his name to research on laminitis, the confounding hoof ailment that led to his death. Many others horses were saved from slaughter by Barbaro-inspired fans.

But Barbaro's greater legacy will always be the deep well of feeling he tapped.

"The time, the money, the effort, the emotion — an awful lot went into that horse," says Dan Dreyfuss, one of the Maryland veterinarians who examined Barbaro in his stall after the Preakness. "Racing fans got to see the lengths we would go to to try and save a horse."

For surgeon Dean Richardson, trainer Michael Matz and owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, the loss will always be a more personal one. For eight months, Barbaro's struggle to live defined their days.

"Never did we want to put the horse through more pain," says Gretchen Jackson, who has owned racehorses with her husband for 40 years. "But on the other hand, we didn't want to quit if there was any opportunity in saving that horse. We loved him so dearly. So it was always a question as to whether we were doing the right thing. Always."

Barbaro's beginnings

Barbaro was a big, gangly boy. The Jacksons met him for the first time in Kentucky, about six weeks after he was born on April 29, 2003. He was broken in Florida, then moved to the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, where Matz was charged with turning him from an awkward 2-year-old into a mighty racehorse.

"Michael is a quiet man, not given to exaggeration," Gretchen Jackson says. "He never gave us a clue as to his ability, and probably, he didn't know. Until you run them, you don't know what you've got."

Matz had heard good things about Barbaro from John and Jill Stephens, the trainers who prepared him in Ocala, Fla. But he didn't guess the colt's true potential until Barbaro raced for the first time, on the turf at Delaware Park.

"He looked like a winner," Gretchen Jackson recalls of that October 2005 afternoon. "He had a presence about him that most good horses have."

She watched the race with a veteran bloodstock agent who said Barbaro's performance made the hairs on her arms stand up.

One day at Fair Hill, Matz sent Barbaro out to work with an older filly. "Don't let her run away from him," he told his assistant, Peter Brette.

"Michael, don't worry about her catching up," Brette replied. "This horse feels like he could be anything."

Because he began his career on turf, the wider world did not catch on to Barbaro's potential as a Kentucky Derby contender until he won the Holy Bull Stakes in February 2006 and survived a stirring stretch duel with Sharp Humor in the Florida Derby.

It's worth noting that for all the emotions he'd later stir, Barbaro was a touchy personality.

"He never was a pet," Gretchen Jackson says. "He was a brute, a professional racehorse. He'd as soon bite you as do anything."

Matz was running a sponge over him one morning before the Florida Derby when he accidentally spilled a few drops of water on the colt's leg. Barbaro kicked so powerfully that Matz flew across the stall and busted his arm against the wall.

'They saw greatness'

One of the first sights you glimpse on a visit to Churchill Downs is the bronze statue of Barbaro, floating above the ground with his legs in midstride beneath his rippling body.

It's a fitting image, because the Barbaro who arrived there in April 2006 was a magnificent athlete about to demonstrate the full flowering of his talent.

Gretchen Jackson is a tough horsewoman, not given to mystical pronouncements. But she felt certain Barbaro would win the Derby. When she and Roy arrived at Churchill Downs that day, she noticed the saddle on the cover of the program bore the No. 8, Barbaro's post position. Then she happened upon a four-leaf clover.

"It was like, 'It's got to be,'" she says. "My heart and my gut told me he was going to win it."

Matz had been criticized for giving Barbaro a five-week rest headed into the race, but he felt his horse was dead fit. Barbaro didn't break a sweat during the post parade, a tense experience for many horses who've never experienced such a crowd.

He wasn't even breathing hard when he returned from whipping the field in one of the best Derby performances in recent memory.

Prado recalls the awe with which the crowd of 157,532 embraced the new champion.

"They saw greatness," he says. "They saw something very special, and I think that's why everybody fell in love with Barbaro."

For those closest to the horse, the day zipped by as a spine-tingling blur.

"It goes by so fast you wish you could slow it down," Roy Jackson says. "Or relive the thing and do it again so you could take it all in. We never saw 'My Old Kentucky Home' played or anything."

"It's like your wedding day," Gretchen Jackson says. "You wait and wait forever for it to take place. And then it's all gone."

Tragedy at Preakness

Barbaro returned to Fair Hill to prepare for the Preakness. And this time, Gretchen Jackson did not feel as confident. Nothing to do with how the horse looked, but she and Roy had always been private people, and they did not relish the scrutiny that accompanied a Derby victory.

"I was more worried as time went on," she says. "The stress was mounting."

Barbaro shipped to Pimlico on Thursday, May 18, and galloped on the track the next morning. He galloped again the morning of the Preakness.

"He galloped so good, Peter said the other horses would have to have wings to beat him," Matz recalls.

The first ill omen arrived when Barbaro broke early at the sound of the last horse locking into the starting gate.

"I remember looking at Michael, and he was really upset," Gretchen Jackson says.

But Barbaro broke cleanly a few seconds later and appeared comfortable as Prado steered him into position. To this day, it's unclear why his leg gave way at the moment it did.

"We never had any inkling something like that could happen," Matz says. "I think it was just a bad situation. Whether he was trying too hard or, I don't know …"

Matz bolted from his seat, immediately grasping how bad the situation was. Prado, who did a superb job pulling Barbaro up when he did, wept in front of the grandstand.

The Jacksons also headed straight from their box to Barbaro's side.

"My sole purpose in getting down there, it was to not put him down," Gretchen Jackson says.

Surgery to save Barbaro

Dreyfuss watched the race on a monitor in one of the trackside hospitality tents. As soon as he saw Barbaro pull up, he ran across the back of the grandstand and jumped on the running boards of the pickup truck that hauled Barbaro's ambulance onto the track.

When he got to the horse, the enormity of the situation melted away, and he mentally ticked through his physician's checklist. The fracture was terrible, but there were two good signs: It had not broken the skin, and Barbaro was not making the injury worse by flailing his leg in panic.

"He was as good a patient as you could have ever hoped for," Dreyfuss recalls.

Back in Barbaro's stall, Dreyfuss and his partner, Nick Meittinis, along with New Jersey veterinarian Scott Palmer, stabilized the leg with a heavy bandage.

One point everyone agrees on is that there was no discussion of euthanizing Barbaro at Pimlico. Dreyfuss and his colleagues thought surgery would give the horse a chance to survive, and they knew where they wanted him to go.

Richardson had just come out of a surgery in Palm Beach, Fla., and watched the Preakness on a 10-inch, black-and-white television outside the operating room. He knew instantly that Barbaro's injury had to be bad and that there was a very good chance the Kentucky Derby winner would be headed for the New Bolton Center, about 75 miles north of Baltimore.

It was Richardson's home base, and he coveted the responsibility of rebuilding the most famous shattered leg in racing.

"Of course, that's what I do," he says.

Everyone, from the trackside veterinarians to the Jacksons, wanted Richardson to be Barbaro's surgeon.

"He was the best," Dreyfuss says.

He took a commercial flight to Pennsylvania in the morning and operated the next afternoon. He knew the leg was broken into many pieces based on radiographs. Richardson had to reconstruct the bone and stabilize it with a stainless steel plate.

Looking back a decade later, he says he'd change only a few minor decisions he made during the procedure. But even though the surgery went well, Richardson believed Barbaro had no more than a 50-50 chance to survive.

"There's just too many things that can go wrong," he says.

Support for Barbaro

Focused as they were on Barbaro's medical perils, neither Richardson nor the Jacksons anticipated the flood of public interest in the horse's recovery.

Kennett Florist, located three miles from New Bolton, became a transmitter of the world's love, delivering not just flowers and notes of sympathy for the Jacksons but truckloads of carrots and apples for the ailing horse and meals for the medical staff caring for him. A combat unit in Iraq sent Barbaro an American flag. Matz heard from a young AIDS patient in Africa who looked to the horse for strength. Someone even sent holy water from Rome, which the Jacksons dutifully applied.

The Fans of Barbaro posted more than 1,000 messages a day on Brown's web site. More than 500 of them — including a mother and daughter from South Africa — would later gather at Delaware Park to celebrate Barbaro's fourth birthday. To this day, they donate to New Bolton Center in his name and place fresh roses beside his statue at Churchill Downs.

"It was an incredibly emotional time, a time I would not trade for anything," Brown says. "One FOB, with whom I am still in contact, would perform dances. She would literally come down to New Bolton Center from New York to dance. … I have met some wonderful people through this entire experience. Some of those people are 'nonconventional,' but being conventional is a little overrated."

The Jacksons found the outpouring overwhelming at times, but came to view it as the most redeeming aspect of the tale.

"That was what really kept us going day to day," Roy Jackson says.

Barbaro's initial recovery went well, with the horse in buoyant spirits. But July 13 brought the news everyone had dreaded — Barbaro had laminitis, the hoof inflammation that often sets in when a horse cannot put equal weight on all four legs. It was the ailment that ended Secretariat's life and those of many other brilliant horses.

"Laminitis is a four-letter word for veterinarians," Dreyfuss says. "It was a heartbreaking thing to hear, because I fully realized what a hard road they were facing."

Gretchen Jackson's first instinct was to put him down then.

Richardson wanted to fight on because he believed that's what Barbaro wanted.

"It was devastating, absolutely devastating," he says of the laminitis. "But at the same time, he was an utterly remarkable horse, and he was dealing with his problem better than nearly any horse I've ever been around. When the time came to discuss euthanizing him, he'd stand there looking at Gretchen and Roy and Michael and I like he had barely a care in the world."

And Barbaro did rebound for much of the rest of 2006. Not until Christmas approached did it become obvious that the tissue in his ailing hind hoof was not regrowing at an acceptable rate.

Matz came up from Florida to visit for the holidays and was taken aback by how sickly Barbaro looked.

"We had seen him every day, so you get used to it," Gretchen Jackson says. "But he shook his head. Michael didn't put into words what he was feeling, but you could read it loud and clear."

By then, she and Roy were used to waking every day to a call from Richardson, detailing Barbaro's condition through the night and his body temperature as recorded at 7 a.m. Gretchen Jackson visited him twice daily, making the short drive from the couple's Lael Farm in West Grove, Pa., to bring him fresh grass and clover. Barbaro was more approachable in recovery than he'd ever been as a racehorse, and her love for him deepened, even as her hope diminished.

Richardson continued attempting corrective surgeries, but Barbaro's spirits worsened, and the laminitis spread to his front hooves. On Jan. 29, 2007, Richardson and Gretchen Jackson finally knew he had suffered enough.

"Roy was sick that weekend," she recalls. "I went over there by myself and he wasn't eating. He wasn't doing anything. He had his head pressed against the door, and he wanted out of that body. He was ready to go. It was no decision, really. He was telling us."

Neither the Jacksons nor Richardson have spent much time second guessing the choices they made over those eight months.

"Do we look back in sorrow? To some degree, yes," Richardson says. "You miss the horse and would give anything to have little Barbaro babies all over the country winning stakes races. But do I regret working on him? Oh man, I would consider it a fabulous year in my life."

Prado says Barbaro holds a place in his heart right behind his mother, wife and children.

Matz is grateful for the time he had with a racehorse so brilliant. The postscript of the story was bittersweet for him. The Jacksons fired him as their trainer in 2011, and he felt they did so without a clear explanation. The Jacksons said they feel no ill will toward Matz but believed it was time for them to move on. He prefers to dwell on the majesty of Barbaro at his brief peak.

"I think the mystery will always be how good could he have been?" Matz says. "I'd like to think he'll be remembered as one of the best. He certainly brought a lot of people together."

Remembering Barbaro

It's a rainy Saturday morning, two weeks before the 2016 Kentucky Derby, and the Jackson are at Fair Hill, visiting the horses they stable there with French trainer Arnaud Delacour. Among them is Divining Rod, the horse who took them back to the Preakness in 2015.

"You're a good boy, always happy," Gretchen Jackson says, patting his head.

The tragedy of Barbaro did not diminish their love for the sport or for their other horses, who include Barbaro's mother, Dynaformer, and his full brother, Margano.

Roy, 79, and Gretchen, 78, sit on bales of hay in Delacour's barn to tell the story of their greatest horse. Gretchen Jackson is well aware of her reputation for toughness. "You know if you piss me off," she says with a glint in her eye. But she cared for Barbaro like one of her own children.

"I carry it inside," she says of her feeling for him. "It's always right there."

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