Heartbeats and Hoofbeats: This Preakness a real heartbreaker

Murphy’s Law strikes again. This time, it struck the Preakness, second jewel of the Triple Crown, with devastating results.

Remember the definitive photo of Barbaro crossing the finish line at Churchill Downs, all by himself, his nearest rivals nowhere in sight? It was so intimidating to the owners and trainers of all but two of his competitors that day, they didn’t even bother to sign up for the Preakness.

But what can happen in one day—or even an instant? It’s not often that you see a jockey sobbing on the shoulders of a trainer. And any trophy presentation at the grandstand, no matter who won, should be a joyful experience. This one began with a sincere expression of sympathy to the people connected with Barbaro, and the entire ceremony was somber and subdued.

Barbaro had never looked better. The long rest period before the Kentucky Derby had obviously stoked this powerhouse of energy. He turned the Run for the Roses into a romp, and with a spectacular 6-1/2 length victory, he made it look deceptively easy.

Coming into the Preakness, he was raring to go—so much so that he even broke through the gate with a false start and had to be led back into the gate. But that wasn’t the cause of the injury that felled him. Shortly after leaving the gate with the rest of the horses, he took a wrong step, resulting in a double fracture above and below the right rear ankle. Credit jockey Edgar Prado with taking immediate action to try to prevent further injury. He got off and brought Barbaro to a stop on the track.

Equine Veterinarian Larry Bramlage, summoned to aid the stricken colt, called it a “significant injury—very life-threatening.” In human terms, the patient would be in bed for six weeks, but you can’t confine a horse to bed. Some of us who saw an earlier race years ago, shudder at the memory of what happened to Ruffian.

She was a big, black filly, strong and powerful; she was described as having the build of a colt. Someone suggested putting her in a match race against 1975 Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. It was arranged, and the pre-race publicity billed it as a good-natured battle of the sexes, along the lines of tennis rivals Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King.

In an eerily similar set of circumstances, the race had hardly gotten under way, both contestants racing neck and neck, when suddenly something snapped. Ruffian’s jockey, like Prado at the Preakness, immediately dismounted to assess the damage. Like Barbaro, Ruffian was put in an ambulance and taken to the hospital. The accident happened when she had changed leads, and an ankle, this one on a foreleg, was shattered.

A serious effort was made to save her. Like Barbaro today, she was given major surgery. The vets carefully patched the pieces together, described as a “comminuted” fracture, in which many small parts had to be put back in place. They put a cast on it and hoped for the best.

But Ruffian, with her indefatigable spirit and high energy, couldn’t let it rest. She thrashed around and managed to rebreak the bones into even smaller pieces. The veterinarians reassessed the situation and decided it was hopeless. With heavy hearts, they put her down.

We can only hope that history doesn’t repeat itself here. Dr. Dean Richardson, who performed the operation on Barbaro, is cautiously optimistic. The horse is given a 50-50 chance to survive. Hopefully, he will live; he might still be valuable as a stallion to pass on some of his talent through his genes. But there is another, deeper dimension more than money. After all the time spent on building a relationship with an animal, the people close to him are hurting for a friend.

Had this accident not occurred and the race gone on as planned, would Bernardini have handed Barbaro his first defeat? We’ll never know. Certainly, the challenger would have given him a run for the money.

That’s why horse racing is so unpredictable—and, occasionally, heartbreaking.

From the May 24-30, 2006, issue

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