Shattered Hopes

A brilliant colt's bid to give his desperate sport a Triple Crown champion turned tragic when Barbaro broke down in the Preakness and began a fight for his life
May 28, 2006

The man is nodreamer, yet dreams chased him just the same. Thoroughbred trainer MichaelMatz, 55, sat in his office at a pastoral training center in rural northernMaryland four days before the Preakness, surrounded by knotty-pine walls andtotems of his four decades among horses. On one wall was a watercolor of Matzastride Jet Run, the best show jumper he ever rode, the one who missed the 1980Olympics because of the U.S. boycott. On another wall was a photo of Camella, afilly who gave Matz his first stakes win after he turned to training racehorsesin 1997, strengthening his faith that he could succeed in a tough game. ¶ Andabove the couch was a collage of the dark-bay 3-year-old Barbaro, the best ofthem all. It was formed from pictures taken on April 1, when he won the FloridaDerby. Five weeks later Barbaro would so dominate the Kentucky Derby in a 61/2-length victory that talk of his winning the Triple Crown rose beforedarkness fell on Churchill Downs. It grew only louder as last Saturday'sPreakness approached. This would be the horse to end the long drought sinceAffirmed won the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1978. ¶ "If we canjust get past this weekend and have a chance at the Triple Crown," saidMatz, "it would be so exciting." Then he stopped. He pursed his thinlips and blinked his light-blue eyes, as if summoning a horseman's innatedefenses against optimism. "I hate to get my hopes up so much," hesaid, "because in two minutes it could be out the window."

It took far lesstime than that. Barbaro ran only about 15 seconds of the 131st Preakness atPimlico Race Course before being pulled up with three fractures and adislocation in his right hind leg. He is finished as a racehorse, but surgeryon Sunday might have saved his life. During a procedure lasting more than fivehours at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square,Pa., veterinary surgeon Dean Richardson inserted a plate and 23 screws intoBarbaro's lower leg while fusing the ankle joint into a stable mass ofinflexible bone.

It was, saidRichardson, a collection of damage--including a long pastern bone shatteredinto more than 20 pieces--that he had never seen before. Nevertheless, late onSunday, Barbaro, his leg in a cast, walked into a 14-by-14-foot recovery stalland began eating hay. But, as Richardson cautioned, "this is only the firststep. Even after everything went well, to be brutally honest, he's still a cointoss [for survival]."

Early on Sunday,Matz had gone to Fair Hill to check on his horses. It is what a trainer doesevery day before dawn. Yet this time it was different. "It was pretty hardwalking by Barbaro's stall," Matz said, "and seeing nobody in there. Ifeel better that we've at least made an effort to save his life."

Barbaro'ssurvival would hold significance beyond the emotional. According to GretchenJackson, who owns Barbaro with her husband, Roy, after the Derby "13 or14" breeding farms had shown interest in standing Barbaro as a stallionupon his retirement. Had he won the Preakness, his syndication price probablywould have approached $40 million. The Jacksons do not want for money, but theyhad grown attached to Barbaro. In a far less lucrative--but more poignant--dealthe Jacksons had also begun negotiations to market Barbaro-themed merchandise("We'll donate everything to charity," Gretchen said before thePreakness), a measure of the connection the public makes with a horse who runsbravely and fast.

Horse racing willbear the larger emotional scars of Barbaro's breakdown. In brilliantlate-afternoon sunshine and a cool breeze, eight horses circled the track afterthe Derby winner stopped. Bernardini, making his fourth career start, won by 51/4 lengths. A Preakness-record crowd of 118,402, stoked for a middle-jewelvictory and a send-off to the Belmont, instead sat in something resembling astunned buzz. It was a sound that racing had heard before.

On July 6, 1975,the brilliant filly Ruffian broke her leg shortly after the start of a matchrace against Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park. Fifteen years later anotherfilly, 3-year-old Go for Wand, broke her leg while battling 6-year-old championBayakoa down the stretch in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, also at Belmont. Bothhorses were humanely destroyed because their injuries were too severe. In 1999Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Charismatic suffered a broken leg near thefinish line in the Belmont, but the colt was saved.

Each incident wasa setback for a sport that fights a losing battle for the attention of anentertainment-saturated public. Racing has served up rich tales in recentyears: Funny Cide's Everyman owners, Smarty Jones's comeback from a near-fatalinjury and Afleet Alex's run in memory of a young girl's heroic fight againstcancer. They all reminded fans of the soul that lives in an ancient game. OnSaturday there were only painful images to remember.

It had been afortnight of promise since Barbaro's win in Louisville. Matz brought his coltfrom Churchill Downs to the solitude of the Fair Hill Training Center inElkton, Md. "He's home, he's happy," assistant trainer Peter Brettesaid of Barbaro early in Preakness week. Two days before the race Matz sentBarbaro out for a quarter-mile workout, as if to remind the colt that he wouldsoon be back in competition. "That was like turning on a switch," Matzsaid on Preakness day.

Last Friday thecolt was vanned to Pimlico and lodged in stall 40 of the stakes barn, thetraditional home of the Kentucky Derby winner. Three hours before thePreakness, Matz greeted a small group of visitors at the barn before hustlingback to meet his family in the clubhouse. "I must have run the race 50times in my head last night," Matz said as he left the barn. "I fellasleep pretty quickly, but I woke up thinking about it. Then I came here atfive this morning and gave him a pretty good gallop, and boy, I'll tell you,now I think I know what scenario we're going to get." He was full ofconfidence, a professional in a dark-blue suit, on top of his game.

The race beganominously. Seconds after the horses were loaded into the starting gate, Barbaropushed through the doors and began running. Jockey Edgar Prado eased him to astop, after about 25 yards, and Barbaro was walked back behind the gate,checked by a veterinarian and reloaded.

Once the gateopened to start the race Barbaro labored to gain contact with the early leadersin the first 200 yards, looking uncharacteristically dull. Matz had alwaysraved that Barbaro puts himself into position with his speed and athleticism."I was right behind him," said jockey Alex Solis, riding Brother Derek."I heard a crack. I knew [the leg] was broken." Prado abruptly stood inthe saddle and pulled on the big horse's reins, trying to bring him to a suddenstop. Barbaro's right hind leg flopped inertly. Later, Richardson andveterinarians at Pimlico would agree that an uneven hoof plant caused Barbaro'sright hind leg to land off-center, breaking the cannon bone. The confused coltran for another 100 yards, breaking a sesamoid near the ankle and splinteringthe long pastern below the joint.

Watching the raceon a TV in a saddling area beneath the grandstand, Brother Derek's trainer, DanHendricks, shouted, "No! No way!" He cradled his face in his right handand groaned, "S---, ah, God."

In a mezzaninebox above the finish line, Matz leaped from his seat and ran toward the track."I was watching my horse, so I never saw anything happen," said MichaelTrombetta, trainer of Preakness runner-up Sweetnorthernsaint. "But MichaelMatz catapulted himself over me like nothing I've ever seen, and then he wasgone."

Prado dismountedand held the reins as Barbaro thrashed about, tossing his injured leg sideways.Six days before the race Prado had sat in the jockeys' lounge at Belmont Parkand humbly counted his blessings. "You have to be so thankful to have ahorse like this," he had said. Now he was desperately trying to easeBarbaro's suffering.

After doctorstook over, Prado put his arm around Roy Jackson's waist; Jackson tossed his armover Prado's shoulder. Matz grimaced, as if physically pained. Ambulanceattendants raised the ominous canvas screen that is used to shield patrons fromthe site of a horse being euthanized. Some fans along the rail screamed; otherscried softly.

Within 15 minutesBarbaro had been vanned back to his Pimlico stall, and within 70 minutes he wasbound for the hospital with a police escort. Hours later Pimlico was quiet,save for the sounds of leaf-blowers moving trash and tractors carving harrowedlines in the sandy surface of the track for the next day's races. Far from thenoise, stall 40 sat empty in the darkness.

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"No! NO WAY!" said Hendricks, the trainer forBrother Derek. He cradled his face in his right hand and groaned, "S---,ah, God."

PHOTOPhotograph by Bill FrakesHELPLESS Moments after pulling up Barbaro (far right), a sorrowful Prado watched handlers try to calm his mount, who broke three bones in his right hind leg. On Sunday the colt underwent five hours of surgery and was given a 50-50 chance of survival. PHOTOMICHAEL BRYANT/THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERBITTERSWEET Making only his fourth career start, Bernardini rallied to victory before a stunned Preakness-record crowd.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)