Fans of Barbaro leave roses at his grave, the magnificent statue at the gates of Churchill Downs.
I was working on proofing transcripts from the Symposium this afternoon when I got a tweet that made me stop and get misty for a minute:
January 29, 2006 Rachel Alexandra born. January 29, 2007 Barbaro dies.
One date, two vastly different stories.
When I think about Barbaro, I feel like a mountain climber who is inches from reaching the summit when a rockslide suddenly causes me to loose my footing and tumble back to the bottom. Barbaro was a very special horse, perfect in build and temperament and blessed with the speed of the wind. After his fantastic 6-length score in the Derby, I was shivering with anticipation for the first Triple Crown winner in my lifetime. I never felt more certain about a horse. And I wasn’t the only one. We all know what happened next, so I will spare the gloom. But out of the fog of tragedy and despair shone a glimmer of hope. All of those like-minded Fans of Barbaro banded together, determined to make the sport a better place.
Three years later, I am still in awe of the power of Barbaro. Instead of sliding into the abyss of cultural forgetfulness, Barbaro has remained stuck firm in the minds of the racing world as well as the public at large. His name is a rallying point for grassroots efforts to save retired racehorses, raise funds for laminitis research and even tighten track safety standards. When I meet people and tell them why I’m in Arizona, they inevitably mention Barbaro, and I tell them I am glad they remember him.
But the world is cyclical.
Though we remember fondly the formidable Derby winner, we must not ignore those who have risen in his shadow.
Rachel Alexandra had just turned a year old that day in 2007. She was living on a farm with many other fillies and colts, learning the basics of being a horse. Still lanky and immature, she’d been pulled from the Keeneland November sale as a weanling by owner/breeder Dolphus Morrison so that she could grow into her frame a little better. It would be many months before the daughter of Medaglia D’Oro even saw a race track for the first time. Once she did, it was obvious she had incredible talent and speed to spare.
In the three years since, Rachel Alexandra grew from that lanky yearling to promising juvenile to legendary Classic winner. Her 20-length score in the Kentucky Oaks was magical, a coronation in pink. She thumped the best three-year-old males in the Preakness, ran away from them all again in the Haskell, and ended her season with a gritty win against older males at Saratoga. She even accomplished what Barbaro couldn’t: Champion 3-Year-Old in her division and Horse of the Year. Now she gallops in Louisiana, and I wait for her return to competition and a meeting with her biggest rival, the undefeated supermare and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Zenyatta.
I am again climbing the mountain, inches from the summit, and this time, my eyes have caught a glimpse of the other side.