The world lost a noble competitor, and I’m not going to deny that I was one of the millions of Barbaro fans who wept on the afternoon of Jan. 29 when I heard the news that the gallant Kentucky Derby winner was euthanized. Like other men, women and children around the world who followed Barbaro’s plight, his story touched me deeply.
After shattering his right hind leg in the Preakness Stakes (Md.) on May 20, Barbaro’s valiant fight for life was remarkable in many ways. From the start, he beat the odds in surviving the initial surgery to repair his damaged leg, and the world cheered him on through the spring and summer as he conquered every medical hurdle thrown his way, including a life-threatening bout with laminitis in July.
When we named Barbaro’s trainer, Michael Matz, the Chronicle’s 2006 Overall Horseman of the Year (see p. 8) for his tremendous accomplishments as a lifelong horseman, I found myself even more drawn into Barbaro’s amazing narrative. Through speaking with Michael and the horse’s co-owner, Gretchen Jackson, I better understood just how much they both loved and admired Barbaro.
Despite their many other responsibilities, Michael and Gretchen visited Barbaro at the New Bolton Center daily during most of his eight-month stay in intensive care. Gretchen even brought Barbaro freshly picked grass, and Michael was dedicated to grazing Barbaro more often than anyone else. Some media outlets reported that the owners simply wanted to keep Barbaro alive so he could earn millions of dollars in stud fees. After hearing the tone of their voices and the words they chose when they spoke of Barbaro, I know differently. If love could have helped to heal Barbaro’s many injuries, the colt would have walked out of that hospital after only a short stay.
Sadly, however, on a crisp winter morning in Kennett Square, Pa., Barbaro’s owners and veterinarians met together one final time to discuss the colt’s prognosis, and they made the agonizing decision that they’d long hoped would escape them.
After months of steady progress, on Jan. 10, Barbaro had a major setback when the laminitis in his left hind hoof worsened. On Jan. 27, Dr. Richardson tried one final surgery, but in the end, with laminitis in three of his four hooves, there was nothing left to do. Dr. Richardson then watched the colt’s characteristic bright, alert look switch off, replaced by a horse who was distressed and uncomfortable. Everyone knew it was time.
Though his fight is over, Barbaro’s legacy will long live on. The Barbaro Fund has raised more than $1.2 million for needed equipment upgrades at New Bolton, including an operating table and a raft and sling for the pool Barbaro used when he came out of anesthesia. In addition, Barbaro’s battle with laminitis has once again brought this mysterious and tragic disease to the forefront, which will hopefully inspire further research. “I hope we can turn our love into energy that will support horses throughout the world,” said Gretchen.
So how great was Barbaro? It’s truly hard to say. Barbaro left us before he could show the world the next Triple Crown winner, before he could retire from racing with a record in purses won, and before he could sire champions of his own.
Unlike other top Thoroughbreds of the modern era, however, Barbaro’s greatness will never be calculated solely in dollar signs. Instead, it’s measured in the tens of thousands of get-well cards, bunches of carrots, bouquets of flowers and hand-drawn posters adorned with prayers that people presented to him. Barbaro wasn’t a horse people followed, he was a horse that people loved.