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Jacksons remember Barbaro as Divining Rod prepares for Preakness

On May 19, 2007, more than a year after the legend of Barbaro was born at Churchill Downs, and less than four months after the horse was put down in an animal hospital, Roy and Gretchen Jackson came to Pimlico Race Course.

They had driven from their home in West Grove, Pa., to honor the winner of Preakness Day's ninth race, a 1 1/16-mile test that since its inception in 1993 had been called the Sir Barton Stakes, after the first winner of the Triple Crown. Now it would be called the Barbaro Stakes, after the horse that had won the Kentucky Derby the year before and never again completed a race, and the Jacksons, who had owned the Maryland-trained colt, would present the trophy.

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Death had given the event life, and the day offered fleeting glimpses of both. After a colt named Chelokee won the Barbaro Stakes, Michael Matz — who had trained Barbaro, who had run onto Pimlico's track when the Triple Crown favorite pulled up in pain a furlong into the Preakness — stopped near the winner's circle. Seeing Gretchen Jackson, they embraced. He had trained Chelokee, too, and it was a "great honor," he said later, to have inaugurated the Barbaro Stakes with a victory. Together, they had found some peace in starting over.

In the next race, the Dixie Stakes, a colt broke down just before the last turn. Mending Fences had fractured his right front ankle; the bone had broken through the skin. A curtain went up, and Mending Fences was euthanized on the track. Pimlico's equine ambulance took his remains away.

Roy Jackson learned long ago that horse racing could be cruel this way. "Life's moved on," he said this week of overcoming such tragedies, but it is different, certainly, when Barbaro was once yours. Even with new hope for Divining Rod, the Jacksons' entry in Saturday's eight-horse Preakness field and their first since Barbaro, the focus skews toward 2006, not 2015. The questions are less about what could be than about what could have been.

"I don't want to dwell on it," Jackson said in a phone interview. "I'd rather dwell on Divining Rod and moving forward. But you know we realize that [Barbaro's] going to come up. And that's fine."

The allure of the unknown can be overpowering. Divining Rod has two wins and three other top-three finishes in his five-race career, enough of a resume to get 12-1 morning-line odds and a fighting chance versus American Pharoah, Dortmund and Firing Line.

But Barbaro, trained at Elkton's Fair Hill Training Center, was undefeated through five races, and after his sixth, the 2006 Derby, he became something more. A 6 ½-lengths victory at Churchill Downs was the biggest winning margin in the Triple Crown's first leg in 60 years, Barbaro's thundering power down the homestretch turning the Derby into a runaway for the roses. What might he do next? And did it matter who would try to stop him?

Two weeks later, at Pimlico, Barbaro entered the No. 6 post, the winningest slot in Preakness history, with 3-5 odds. He broke through the starting gate prematurely, then, on the restart, got off to an even cleaner start than he had in the Derby. About 100 yards into the race, jockey Edgar Prado "heard a noise." He pulled Barbaro up. The horse hobbled sideways, as if his right hind leg had stepped on a nail.

"It was tragic," said Divining Rod trainer Arnaud Delacour, who was not connected to Barbaro. "It was just unfortunate."

Spectators looked on in horror. "Don't you kill that horse!" some screamed. Barbaro was sent by van to the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, where a veterinary team of seven inserted a titanium plate and 27 screws to fix a leg that had fractured in three places, to put back together a pastern bone that had shattered into more than 20 pieces.

Soon there was an infection, and more surgery, then laminitis contracted in his left hind hoof. When the often-fatal disease developed in his previously unaffected front legs, it became too much for horse and owners alike to bear. On Jan. 29, 2007, almost 37 weeks after the Preakness, he was euthanized. Barbaro was 3.

"We're very glad we had him," Jackson said. "It's sad that he got injured, and we probably never saw the potential" realized.

Death would not stop the life the Jacksons had chosen. They enjoyed racing too much. If they could raise another horse to compete in the Preakness, they would welcome the chance. Divining Rod is their first entry in the race in nearly a decade, but they have been back to Pimlico many times before. For all of the heartbreak they endured, it still made no sense to deny themselves what they loved.

So now they enter the 140th running of the Preakness at once distancing themselves from Barbaro's downfall and clinging to memories of his ascent. In Delacour's discussions with the Jacksons about Saturday's race, the horse whose hard-charging fury was immortalized in a 1,500-pound bronze statue at Churchill Downs has not come up.

"No, never," Delacour said.

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But reminders dot the Jacksons' 190-acre Lael Farm, which takes its name from the Gaelic word for loyalty. A middle-school class in New York state sent drawings of Barbaro. They kept those. There were commemorative Beanie Babies made. They still have a couple. Every so often, someone from the "Fans of Barbaro," the international support group that came to be in the wake of the Preakness, will send an email.

And now there is hope that Divining Rod can do what Barbaro was never able to.

"You know, one thing that's sort of ironic in this situation that I didn't realize until I read it someplace this morning," Jackson said, his voice more excited, "the jockey that's going to ride him, [Javier] Castellano, he was on Bernardini when Barbaro got injured."

Bernardini won the Preakness that year. It's his only Triple Crown win.

"It's sort of ironic," he continued, chuckling softly, "to have him come back and ride this horse. I didn't realize that. It's interesting how things go around."

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