Tag Archives: Barbaro

Three Years Later

Image from Kentucky Derby facebook page

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.

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Filed under obituary, Rachel Alexandra, zenyatta


For once, I am glad to be wrong.  Two years ago, I when I wrote about racing on Myspace, I asked:

Will we still pray for Barbaro on May 5, 2007?

On that day, a new three-year-old will gallop across the finish line in the 9th race at Churchill Downs, in front of God, an International TV audience, 170,000 people under the Spires, the Queen of England and 3 members of the skipaway2000 family, and become The Most Famous Horse in the World.

Will the public be able to handle 2 horses of such reknown?  And what if our ultimate wet dream comes true, and that horse wins the Triple Crown? 

Will we still pray for Barbaro then?

I am sorry to say, probably not.  While fans like yours truly will certainly keep informed of his condition, the public at large is too fixated on the here and now.  Last weekend I was at Oaklawn, where the talk was not on Barbaro, but Hard Spun.  The Larry Jones trainee is on the KY Derby Watchlist, having just won the Lecomte Stakes, and he is stabled at Oaklawn. D Wayne Lukas has set up shop in Arkansas, too, and his 2 wins on the day created quite a buzz.  While a few folks in my own party asked about Barbaro, no one else around me did.  Their eyes were on the horses before them and the races yet to be run.

Newspapers in horse-friendly places and in cities with racetracks run articles updating Barbaro’s condition, but in places like Memphis, the last news of Barbaro was probably back when his cast was first removed.  He doesn’t make the NBC Nightly News anymore.  At my job, where I greet thousands of people each week, fewer and fewer of them recognize my racing pins.  As usual, the plight of the Most Famous Horse in the World has receded to the racing microcosm.  It was quite a run for him, though, 31 lengths longer than Smarty or Alex. 

  I posted that on Jan 28, 2007.  The very next day, Barbaro died.  I felt like crap.  All of my co-workers were apologetic, and I got an inboxful of e-mails from friends and family sending condolences.  It was the top story on all of the major news broadcasts, on the front page of the Memphis paper, and the most-viewed story on CNN.com. 

In the two years since, people have not forgotten Barbaro. 

New Bolton Center has gotten millions in donations in Barbaro’s name, to help with laminitis research. 

Fans of Barbaro have contributed to equine rescue organizations, saving thousands of off-the-track thoroughbreds from slaughter. 

The public, still recovering from Barbaro’s fate, demanded real change in the racing industry after witnessing Eight Belles’s death.

Today, all of the venues for Triple Crown races, Churchill, Pimlico and Belmont, are in states with no-steroids policies in effect.  California, Breeders’ Cup home for 2 years, has also implemented the same rules.  More tracks are going synthetic and more dirt tracks are re-evaluating their surfaces.  Medication rules in general are facing tougher scrutiny. 

Jockeys who are too crop-happy are being punished.  Trainers who use unscrupulous tactics or illegal substances are getting suspended. 

Racing has traveled a troubled track since Jan. 29, 2007.  Barbaro’s memory has inspired us to stay on the high road and be a better sport. 

On Saturday, the eighth race at Gulfstream will feature a group of maiden three-year-olds running a mile on the dirt, typical for January weekends in Florida.  Breaking from post 2 is a bay colt sired by Dynaformer, out of the mare La Ville Rose.  He will be ridden by Edgar Prado, at the instruction of trainer Michael Matz.  Prado will be wearing the familiar blue, green and white silks of Lael Stables.  There will be millions of fans of Barbaro watching this ordinary maiden race and praying for his full brother, Nicanor, to come home safely.   But when Nicanor leaps from the gate for the first time, it will mark the beginning of a new story that only he can write.

Nicanor will make his first start Jan 31.  Photo from The Blood-Horse

Nicanor will make his first start Jan 31. Photo from The Blood-Horse

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Here’s a movie I would Go See

John Henry and The Bart, 1981 Arlington MillionI was listening to Drake & Zeke Monday AM, and they were talking to a sportswriter whose article about Barbaro is in the works to be a major motion picture.  That’s exactly what we need — weeper about a beautiful horse who wins the KY Derby, gets injured and then dies.  Isn’t that basically the same plot as Million Dollar Baby? 

Why keep rehashing the Barbaro story, when there is a much more uplifting horse story just laying there at Hollywood’s feet?  I can picture it now…


 Old John’s story took him from Kentucky to the bayous of Louisiana to the NYC circuit to Cali and beyond, and he was connected to a host of colorful people, not the least Sam Rubin, his final owner who enjoyed his greatest success.

The beginning of the film could be a high-energy replay of the Affirmed/Alydar Belmont, the highest peak in the TB world…then the images fade into a quieter, plainer backside where a small, brown colt is tearing down the walls of his stall and throwing feed bins.  From there, the film could show him passed from owner to owner until he falls into the hands of funloving Rubin and trainer Ron MacAnally.  You can see John win the Chocolatetown Handicap and Sam accept the trophy full of hershey’s candy.  The movie progresses as John wins more, and don’t forget Whittingham’s legendary comment, “beat him? I’m just trying to outlive him!”  The climax will be his thrilling run in the inaugural Arlington Million, against the top horses in the US & Europe.  He races far back and grinds out the stretch, racing neck and neck with The Bart, surging under the wire to a photo finish.  The crowd and commentators all watch and wait for the stewards’ decision, and finally, the tote board flashes OFFICIAL — John Henry has won, by a nose, AGAINST ALL ODDS!

The story takes place in the early 80’s, which is experiencing a renaissance in pop culture.  Racing fans lov movies about our heroes, and John Henry was one of the greatest ever — 83 starts, 39 wins and over $6 mill in earnings, the first horse to reach that amount.  He raced a long time, to the age of 9, and when he rtired, it was not to stud, but to the only theme park for horses, where his many fans could visit him.  He died last year at the age of 32, and over 500 people attended his funeral, including me:-)


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