The day before Preakness Stakes (gr. I) 131, Barbaro arrived at Pimlico by van to a hero's welcome, as a gauntlet of photographers, cameramen, and writers greeted racing's newest superstar. Barbaro stared out the van window at the large throng that had gathered. It was a stark contrast from the halcyon days spent over the past two weeks at the Fair Hill Training Center.
The following day, Barbaro was once again on a van staring out the window, this time at an even larger crowd. On this occasion, however, the hordes of people were not greeting the horse, but bidding him farewell. Many believed for the last time.
As the van departed Pimlico with a police escort for the hour-and-45-minute drive to the New Bolton Medical Center in Kennett Square, Pa., people wandered about with emotionless faces, some still showing the signs of recently shed tears.
The horrific injury suffered by Barbaro in the Preakness was the tragedy of Thoroughbred racing. The triumph was Bernardini's spectacular victory, one that deserved to be played out in front of cheering, appreciative fans instead of a grief-stricken crowd jolted into stunned silence. The two faces of racing formed one conflicting picture, as Bernardini, 5 1/4 lengths ahead of his closest pursuer, charged past Barbaro, who stood helplessly just past the finish line in front of a record 118,402 fans.
Just seconds before, he was running free, with a cool May breeze in his face and adrenaline pumping through his body. All was as it should have been. Then came a sensation he had never felt before. His right hind leg, which had helped propel him to victory after victory, suddenly became lifeless, shattered by three fractures that crushed his pastern into 20 fragments of bone.
The cheers that had been reserved for Barbaro on this day were replaced by shrieks and pleas not to euthanize the horse, which seemed a possibility after a screen was placed in front of the colt, shielding him from the crowd.
"No! No! No!" one woman by the rail screeched in utter despair at the sight of the screen being put up. "Do not put that horse down! Don't you dare put him down. I'll buy him for a dollar."
Shouts of "take him home" and "get him on the van" also were heard from the frantic fans who were witness to the gut-wrenching images directly in front of them. Many wept uncontrollably as the once-mighty Barbaro was attended to by track veterinarians, who placed a Kimzey splint on the right hind leg.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the screen was removed and trainer Michael Matz helped open the door of the ambulance. As Barbaro was led on, a round of applause erupted from the stands.
Darrell Haire of the Jockeys' Guild rushed onto the track to console a distraught Edgar Prado, who was bent over in anguish.
Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, headed back to the barn to see their horse. "You don't expect something like this," Gretchen said. "Being beaten, yes, but not this. If you followed this horse you had to love him."
That was all she had to say. "Excuse me," she said almost apologetically. "I have some phone calls I need to make, because I have a family that's waiting to figure out what to do."
As the large gathering of media searched for any information they could find, a solitary figure leaned against a fence by the loading ramp, staring off into space. Matz' daughter, Michelle, who works as an exercise rider for her father, had just a short while earlier been brimming with confidence that Barbaro would put on a show similar to the one in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) two weeks before.
"He was a great horse anyway," she said. When asked why she used the past tense, she shook her head slightly and replied, "It's not good. They're going to try to save him, but I don't know. This horse has always been such a professional. When he walked out of the barn today I looked at him and I knew he was going to kick butt. Peter (assistant trainer Brette) told me, 'He's unbeatable, Michelle.' It's so hard because he loves to run."
Just then, Michelle saw Prado heading toward the barn and ran after him. The two hugged, burying their heads in each other's shoulder. "I'm sorry," Prado said. "It's not your fault," she replied.
A noticeably shaken DD Matz, wife of the trainer, walked to her car and stopped briefly to provide information. "He's handling it like the true champion he is," she said. "He's going to the best place possible, with the best surgeons, so he'll get the best care he can."
Her emotions then caught up with her and she was unable to continue. "I really don't want to talk about this," she said. "I'm not going to discuss it. I'm sorry."
While this drama was being played out, there still was the glory of victory for some. It was just a shame that when Bernardini returned to the barn following his sensational victory no one noticed or seemed to care.
Here was a horse with only three career starts, and who had never been around two turns, destroying his field in a brilliant 1:54.65 for the 13/16 miles. It was one of the most impressive performances in Preakness history, but sadly will be enveloped in the shroud of Barbaro's misfortune.
Although he was lightly raced and didn't make his career debut until Jan. 7, Bernardini's story actually began well before that.
Several days before the 2005 Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships at Belmont Park, trainer Tom Albertrani was heading to the track on his pony when the topic of the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) came up. Albertrani had something bottled up inside that he was dying to let out, and this was his opportunity.
"The best 2-year-old in the country isn't running in the race," he said.
Knowing his own reputation as a low-keyed, conservative horseman whose training methods and personality are geared toward reality, not fantasy, he couldn't help but break into a sly grin as he uttered those words, realizing the reaction they would bring.
When pressed on his uncharacteristic comment, all he would say was, "You'll know him when he runs."
Several months passed, and no Albertrani-trained horse had emerged as anything special. Then, on Jan. 28, Albertrani saddled Darley Stable's Songster to win his career debut at Gulfstream in a blistering 1:21.59 for seven furlongs.
Albertrani's secret finally had been revealed; or so one thought. "No, that's not the one," he said. "The one I told you about is another Darley colt named Bernardini, and he's run once and finished fourth. He was very green and got a lot of dirt kicked in his face. Jerry Bailey rode him and said the light just didn't go on. But you'll hear from him soon enough."
In his next start, on March 4, Bernardini, who also was bred by Darley, broke his maiden in spectacular fashion, winning by 73/4 lengths in a sharp 1:35.57. By now, names like Brother Derek, Barbaro, and Lawyer Ron had emerged as the leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby.
"I said back in the fall you haven't seen the best one yet, and I'll say again, you haven't seen the best one yet," Albertrani said following the colt's maiden victory. "One day, you'll get to write the story on this horse. He just has a presence about him, and he's so agile and well-balanced. When he works, it looks like his feet never touch the ground. Everyone who's ever had him has said there's something about him. He's got that look in his eye. He's the best young horse I've ever been around."
After Bernardini won the one-mile Withers Stakes (gr. III) by 33/4 lengths in 1:35.07, despite jockey Javier Castellano dropping his whip in the stretch, Albertrani was given the green light by Darley owner Sheikh Mohammed to run him in the Preakness, if that's what he wanted to do. Assistant trainer Andy Rehm thought Albertrani probably would take the more conservative route and go in the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont Park the same day, but Albertrani never even gave it a thought.
It didn't matter in the slightest that Bernardini had run only three times in his career, and would have to face runaway Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, as well as Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint. This was the moment Albertrani had been waiting for and dreaming about since that morning in late October. It finally was time to show the world the greatness of Bernardini.
"We're this close to telling the story," Albertrani said Preakness morning, holding his thumb and forefinger close together. "I've never had a horse of this caliber, and I feel more confident with this horse going into a big race than any horse in the past. Having only three starts doesn't bother me at all. When you watch him train, he certainly doesn't look like a horse that needs more seasoning. I believe this will be his race to peak. I'm just going to tell Javier to be patient and ride with confidence."
Rehm, who worked for several years as an assistant to D. Wayne Lukas, had also been forewarned early about Bernardini. "When Tom sent him to me at Payson Park in late November, he told me this could possibly be the best horse he's ever had, and Tom never says 'boo,' " said Rehm, who like Albertrani has a cool head on his shoulders and never gets overly excited over a horse.
"He was Jimmy Bell's pick of all the yearlings," Rehm said on Preakness morning, referring to the president of Darley USA. "He said this was always the golden child. Bernardini went into his first race a baby and came out a bear. Since then, he's trained and looked better every day. When he moves he takes your breath away. I have so much confidence in him; if he doesn't finish first or second today I'll be very disappointed. I don't know if he's good enough to beat Barbaro, but he's put on weight, he's dappled, and he'll run higher than a 104 Beyer (speed figure) this time, no doubt in my mind."
Bernardini had also caught the attention of other trainers. When talking about the chances of his colt Like Now in the Preakness, as well as the top contenders, Kiaran McLaughlin said, "You know, there's a very, very, very good horse in this race--Bernardini. He went from a '15' to a '6' to a 'negative 3/4' (on The Sheets) in the Withers. He's supposed to bounce off that, so he might not do it on Saturday, but you'll be reading about him some day."
What boosted Bernardini's reputation even further was the fact that High Finance, the horse he beat by 73/4 lengths in his maiden victory, came off that race to break his maiden by 91/4 lengths at Keeneland before winning a one-mile allowance race by five lengths at Belmont in 1:34.96.
This year's Preakness was unlike any other. Normally, by Wednesday of Preakness week, the Pimlico stakes barn is a hotbed of activity. Most of the horses competing in the second jewel of the Triple Crown are already on the grounds, and members of the media are beating a path in and out of the hospitality room, with coffee and donuts in hand.
But times have steadily been changing. This year, not a soul stirred in the stakes barn. On Wednesday morning, the only occupant was Oreo, a 19-year-old Paint horse who was recruited as Brother Derek's pony.
While the air remained stagnant over Old Hilltop on the Monday before the race, the winds of activity were beginning to stir a short distance away. Approximately 60 miles to the north, as a steady May rain dampened the lush green expanse of the Fair Hill Training Center, Barbaro, the spectacular winner of the Kentucky Derby, was stepping up his training and galloping strongly over the seven-furlong wood chip track.
This was a world far removed from Pimlico, or any other racetrack. Matz' barn is nestled on the fringes of dense woodlands and bordered on the opposite side by gently rolling hills and wide open spaces, creating an idyllic atmosphere. The winding horse path, which rises and dips ever so slightly, first passes Matz' two paddocks and eight round pens and then stretches over the horizon to the two tracks.
Barbaro, only 10 days earlier, was weaving his way through heavy traffic on the Churchill Downs oval and surrounded by clusters of photographers and cameramen as he walked to and from the track. Now, here he was, with Matz aboard the pony, ambling along in solitude, with his only company an occasional swallow darting across his path.
It was no wonder Matz decided to keep the son of Dynaformer in this bucolic setting for as long as possible.
Some 30 miles south of Pimlico, Sweetnorthernsaint was stepping up his training for the Preakness at Laurel Park, and on the Wednesday before the race Brother Derek shipped in from Churchill Downs. Both colts had nightmarish trips in the Derby and were looking for redemption in the Preakness.
Were three powerful forces converging on Pimlico, producing a "perfect storm" for the Preakness, or would Brother Derek, Sweetnorthernsaint, and the other six starters get blown away by the same Barbaro blast that swept through Louisville?
Little did anyone know that the real tempest was building up strength at Belmont Park and would not arrive at Pimlico until the day before the Preakness. By Saturday night, in the calm after the Preakness storm, the new name on everyone's lips was Bernardini.
Earlier Preakness day, Barbaro and Brother Derek went to the track at the same time for one final gallop at 5:45 a.m. The track was open from 5:30-6 for Preakness horses only. As Barbaro and Matz left the barn, Brother Derek's trainer, Dan Hendricks, said to Matz, "Let's get out there and get it over with this morning," to which Matz responded with a smile, "It's going to happen soon enough, Dan."
As the day progressed, one could see Albertrani's confidence swell. This was so out of character for the 48-year-old native of Brooklyn, N.Y., one couldn't help but get caught up in that confidence.
Hendricks spent most of the afternoon outside the barn with his 10-year-old son Greg, who was perplexed by all the attention his father has received. One woman stopped by just to say, "You give everybody inspiration; you really do." When another asked him for his autograph, Greg shrugged his shoulders and asked, "Why does anyone want his autograph? He's just the trainer of a horse."
As the horses were called to the paddock, Matz and Hendricks, who had developed a tremendous respect for each other over the past three weeks, wished each other luck. Hendricks' final words to Matz were, "Safe trip."
Sadly, it was not to be. Barbaro, the 1-2 favorite, broke through the gate before the start and was quickly caught by an outrider. Brother Derek, next to him in post 5, also gave a lunge, banging his nose, which led to a slight bleeding episode. The colt later was scoped, but the bleeding was insignificant, according to Hendricks.
Several experienced horse people watching the incident said they saw Barbaro take a bad step just before being caught, but David G. Zipf, longtime chief veterinarian for the Maryland State Racing Commission, said the two incidents were unrelated.
"I went through the stall he was in and followed him back around," said Zipf, who was stationed behind the starting gate and visually inspects any horse that breaks through the stall prematurely. "Once he was gathered up and turned around, the first thing I looked for was head trauma or abrasions or cuts. I then walked behind him as he trotted back to make sure, leg-wise, that there was no problem. I could see nothing that would insult his performance; saw no problems with his head or legs. I'm certain there was nothing that would predispose to the injury that occurred in the race."
After Barbaro was reloaded, the start was clean, although Brother Derek was shuffled back to last, all but costing him the race. Everyone else seemed to be in good position when the flow of the race was suddenly interrupted by Barbaro being pulled up by Prado. The sight of the colt's right hind ankle, dangling as if nearly disconnected from the leg, sent a wave of grief and disgust rippling through the grandstand.
The eyes, not knowing where to look, alternated between Barbaro and the running of the race, which now seemed less significant to most.
"I couldn't see the track from where I was, and the image on the screen wasn't clear," Albertrani said. "I was trying to focus on my horse, and was happy to see the position he was in. Then I saw Michael (Matz) running through the aisle, and when you see that, naturally, you know something terrible had happened. I heard someone say that Barbaro had been eased, but I couldn't see him."
Prado said he heard a noise about 100 yards into the race, and immediately pulled him up. But, according to veterinarian Larry Bramlage, because it happened early in the race, Barbaro was going too fast to pull up quickly enough to prevent further damage. By continuing to run on, the colt suffered two additional fractures.
Meanwhile, as the field turned down the backstretch, with Like Now setting the pace followed closely by Sweetnorthernsaint and Bernardini, Brother Derek made a powerful, sustained move from last to second.
"When Brother Derek went by us, I started getting a little worried that maybe we weren't running our race," Albertrani said. "But when I saw him come back into the picture at the five-sixteenths pole, I said, 'It's all over.' "
After stiff fractions of :23.21, :46.69, and 1:10.24, Brother Derek ran out of gas, and Sweetnorthernsaint moved up to wrest command from Like Now. Bernardini suddenly exploded inside Brother Derek and pounced on the leaders from the outside while appearing to be pulling Javier Castellano out of the saddle.
Bernardini collared Sweetnorthernsaint at the top of the stretch. After drawing clear by a length, Castellano hit his colt once right handed and Bernardini lugged in, forcing Sweetnorthernsaint to alter course to the outside. Bernardini opened a three-length lead at the eighth pole, and after being hit four times left-handed, continued to open up under a hand ride.
Because the homebred son of A.P. Indy, out of Cara Rafaela, by Quiet American, was so lightly raced, it made his move all the more amazing. Albertrani's visions of greatness were turning into reality right before his and everyone's eyes. Bernardini's closing three-sixteenths in :18.92 was one of the fastest in Preakness history.
Sweetnorthernsaint, who grabbed a quarter in the race, turned in a big effort to finish second, six lengths ahead of the Nick Zito-trained longshot Hemingway's Key, who was four lengths in front of Brother Derek, the 3-1 second choice.
The great British racecaller, Peter O'Sullevan, patented a phrase that certainly fits Bernardini and his performance in the Preakness: "What manner of horse is this?"
Everyone's attention after the race quickly shifted to Barbaro, who handled the whole ordeal "like an absolute champion," according to veterinarian Nick Meittinis.
Matz accompanied the horse to New Bolton, where surgery was performed the following day.
Barbaro, who was sedated and placed in a four-layer padded bandage, arrived at New Bolton just after 9 o'clock. Outside the gates of the clinic a large crowd gathered, with many people holding signs and placards wishing the colt well. Some were in tears as the van passed through the entrance. Local TV stations had helicopters overhead filming Barbaro's arrival, just as they did with Smarty Jones on much happier occasions.
At Pimlico, as the backstretch revelers rapidly filled up the tent at the opposite end of the barn, horsemen were still reflecting on Barbaro's injury.
"I'm happy for Tom and the team, but it's always a bittersweet victory when something like this happens," said Jimmy Bell.
Mike Trombetta, trainer of Sweetnorthernsaint, was thrilled with his colt's performance, but found it difficult discussing Barbaro's injury immediately after the race. "Give me a while before I say anything; I just can't talk right now."
"Let's just hope Barbaro lives," Nick Zito said. "You have to cherish every moment in racing, because here's a star."
On a brighter note, Albertrani finally was able to look back at his comment seven months earlier and laugh about it. "You can say something like that a thousand times and nothing will ever come of it," he said. "But this was one of those rare times that it worked out just as you thought it would."
As darkness fell on Pimlico, Castellano showed up at the barn and went right over to Bernardini, who had been posing for pictures with several visitors. "I told you," he said to the horse. "I came to see you last night and I gave you a kiss and told you we were going to win."
Castellano had run into Rehm in their hotel lobby the previous night. He was feeling bored, and when Rehm told him he was going to the barn to check on the horses (Bernardini, Songster, who won the grade III Hirsch Jacobs by 10 lengths, and Sabre d'Argent), he asked if he could go along.
"I asked the horse how he was doing and if he was going to win the race, and he just stood there paying attention to every word I said," Castellano said. "Here I am at 9 o'clock the night before the Preakness talking to the horse. I gave him a kiss and said to him, 'OK, see you tomorrow. We're going to win.' "
About 30 yards away, at the darkened end of the barn, Barbaro's hotwalker, Ricardo Orozco, prepared to return to Fair Hill along with groom Eduardo Hernandez. It would be a long trip home. The equipment was packed, and soon all evidence that Barbaro had been there would be gone.
Stall 40, which traditionally is home to the Kentucky Derby winner, is empty at least 45-50 weeks out of the year. But never this empty.
This article appears in the May 27, 2006 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine.
About the Author
Steve Haskin is Senior Contributor to The Blood-Horse magazine, sister publication to The Horse.
POLL: Stocking Up On Hay