In a sport filled with, and fueled by, optimists and pessimists alike, Barbaro dealt thoroughbred horse racing a hand that neither side could lie down without a fight.
The popular 2006 Kentucky Derby winner rightly became a lightening rod for racing fans and general human sympathy following his devastating right-hind leg fracture suffered during the Preakness Stakes.
But the fight became too much to bear for both horse and humans Monday morning January 29th when Barbaro was humanely euthanized at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center. For the horse, it became a peaceful end to a 254-day fight that few, if any, of his peers had ever had to endure. The decision came after an emergency surgery on Sunday failed to alleviate discomfort in the horse, which could no longer lie down or stand under his own power.
Barbaro's gripping story came literally on the heels of recent Triple Crown tales that proved racing's reality to be far more endearing than fiction.
In recent years alone, you had unheralded Funny Cide's lovable, next-door-neighbor-like owners traveling by yellow school bus to racing's biggest events in 2003. Then came Smarty Jones, who kept respirator-bound owner Roy Chapman fighting a winning battle for his life, and almost the entire 2004 Triple Crown. A year later, Afleet Alex nearly fell in the 2005 Preakness stretch, but seemingly was pulled to his feet by the spirit of little Alex Scott and the Alex's Lemonade Stand children's cancer cause for which he ran.
While the Belmont Stakes became the final career starts for Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones due to minor, racing-related injuries, Barbaro's Preakness catastrophe played out on live, national television. Jockey Edgar Prado openly cried trackside in the arms of assistant trainer Peter Brette. It was a vision too gruesome to ignore, too heart-wrenching to underestimate and too hit-you-in-the-gut to let go.
Barbaro's story simply trumps them all. Like Smarty Jones, he became an undefeated Kentucky Derby winner when he strolled under the Twin Spires on May 6 — an accomplishment only six horses in history can boast. Meanwhile, Barbaro's six-and-a-half length winning margin in Louisville was the Derby's biggest blowout since Assault's eight-length victory in 1946.
But for the mere 2:01.36 it took for the world to be introduced to a truly great racehorse at Churchill Downs, it was the 254 subsequent days that cast Barbaro's legacy in bronze for the ages. The eight-month ordeal saw the chiseled racehorse defy veterinary logic. Those who walked near him at New Bolton Center commented that the champ was as feisty as ever, looking to take a bite out of any non-suspecting passers-by.
Barbaro's owners, Gretchen and Roy Jackson, and Dr. Dean Richardson's New Bolton staff fought the good fight in a race they couldn't win against equine medicine and anatomy. But their dedication to Barbaro, and the horse's unwavering will to survive, will go down as one of the truly great chapters in horse racing history.
While Barbaro's legacy will not be able to be purported by championship offspring on the racetrack, Pimlico Racecourse announced in late December that the former Sir Barton Stakes, contested annually on the Preakness undercard, will be renamed the Barbaro Stakes in his honor. "This change will allow the next generation of race fans to reflect upon this magnificent and beloved champion during Preakness day at Pimlico," said Lou Raffetto, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, at the time of the announcement.
On the day that Barbaro was injured at Pimlico, trainer Tom Albertrani saw his upstart colt Bernardini win a bittersweet Preakness that eventually would propel him to unseating Barbaro as the year's Champion 3-Year-Old Colt.
"I think we all will remember Barbaro as one of the best 3-year-olds we've seen, and remember his courage for fighting the past several months," Albertrani said. "This is the first time I've been around to see a horse fight for his life for so long, and have had so many obstacles in his way ... he was a fighter. To see that in a horse, well, actually no one's ever seen that before.
"I think he would have been a great stallion. You normally hope those traits are passed down generation to generation, or at least hope they are to maybe one or two of his offspring. That would have been something special."
Fellow trainer Graham Motion has an interesting perspective on Barbaro and the late colt's stoic trainer, Michael Matz. Both championship-level trainers work out of the secluded northern Maryland training facility at Fair Hill, which was Barbaro's home for much of his racing career.
"Michael keeps his thoughts close to him and shows very little emotion," Motion said. "I realized early this morning when I talked to him just how grave things must have become from the changed tone in his voice."
"Barbaro was every trainer's dream from a racing perspective," Motion added. "And while it's a sad day for everyone involved — the Jacksons, the people at New Bolton who worked so hard for so long to keep him alive — it has to be especially sad for Michael. What had to be the best day of his professional life, winning the Kentucky Derby, has turned out to be associated with the saddest of memories with the very same horse. Michael can't ever again recall the happiness of the Derby without the sadness associated with Barbaro's fate."