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Barbaro - a tribute.

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Barbaro

January 31, 2007

For the last twenty years or so, I’ve spent the winter and early spring months searching for the winner of the Kentucky Derby. In 2006, Barbaro found me. More than once actually.

The first time I heard the word ‘freak’ and ‘Barbaro’ in the same sentence was last February. A co-worker of mine, Mike, had seen Barbaro on a trip to Florida and came back to Kentucky raving about him.

‘Yeah, ok,’ I thought, ‘he’s a nice grass horse and he handled the slop in the Holy Bull’.

I kept on looking.

Last March, I accepted an assignment for The Horseplayer magazine and was asked to do a short profile on Barbaro and his chances in the Derby. For the project, I went back and reviewed all his races and I was struck by how competitive, yet responsive, he was. I was impressed at how he kindly rated behind horses, even though it was clear that he couldn’t wait for Edgar Prado to say ‘go’. And when he was let loose, as odd as it sounds, he seemed to enjoy running away from the other horses.

In Horseplayer I wrote of Barbaro:
“Watch this horse barrel down the stretch in his previous races. He loves to run and is as classy and competitive as they come”

I turned in the Barbaro profile a few days after the Florida Derby and I still had five weeks to make a final Derby decision. My search continued.

One of the perks of working for a Central Kentucky stallion farm is having the opportunity to ‘meet’ some nice horses. After Barbaro proved he could handle a dry dirt surface in the Florida Derby, he became a much more intriguing stallion prospect. So our Stallion Director, Byron, arranged a viewing while the horse was stabled at Keeneland last April.

I’d be less than honest if I said I went along solely in my official capacity of evaluating Barbaro as a potential stallion. I was, after all, still looking for the Derby winner and here was a chance to get up close and personal with this unbeaten son of Dynaformer (this freak?).

It was one of those perfect, sunny, Kentucky April days when Peter Brett led Barbaro out of his stall and up the slight incline to the walking ring. I don’t know why I wasn’t immediately awed by the horse. He was certainly classy, all class really, with the brightest of eyes and coolest of demeanors. And he was a big horse, but his size didn’t seem to come at the expense of athleticism. I also remember thinking that he was dead fit and that the five week gap between the Florida and Kentucky Derbies wouldn’t make the slightest difference.

Mr. Brett gave us the obligatory parade; Byron analyzed Barbaro’s confirmation and walk with high end breeders in mind. I eyed Barbaro closely with Derby Day in mind. We had a nice chat with Mr. Brett afterward as Barbaro calmly grazed on some fresh spring grass. The bond between that man and that horse, which I would read about later, was clearly evident. Not long after everything went wrong on Preakness Day, I thought of Mr. Brett and how beyond devastated he must have been.

I walked away from Barbaro that day a little confused, though, saying to Byron: ‘He’s a really nice horse, but I just don’t know….’ So the search continued.

About 10 days later, and exactly one week before the 132nd Kentucky Derby, I was on the backside at Churchill Downs, standing at the clocker’s stand where the chute meets the main track. I happened to turn my attention from the horses galloping by and noticed a horse, accompanied by a pony, standing in the middle of the chute.

‘Who is that?!,’ I remember excitedly thinking.

“Oh, that’s Barbaro… Barbaro!,” I said to myself after recognizing Michael Matz on the pony.

Barbaro’s awesome presence hit me like bolt of lightning. I quickly realized that I wasn’t skilled enough to see it in the docile surroundings at Keeneland. But, on the track, ready for business, he oozed greatness, and even a hack like me could see it then.

I would see Barbaro again about 15 minutes later as he galloped around the first turn after his final pre-Derby workout. The horse never was the prettiest mover, but I was again amazed at how much he enjoyed what he was doing, reaching out with his forelimbs and neck, as if he thought he take off and fly. And that was while he was being geared down by the rider.

The backstretch during Derby Week is pretty chaotic and my attention was drawn away from Barbaro for a moment, maybe two. But when I turned back to where I thought Barbaro would be, where he should be after that moment or two out of my sight, he wasn’t there. I craned my neck a bit to see more of the track and there he was, way up there, well beyond where my instinct told me would be.

I’ll never forget saying to myself: ‘Wow, that horse just covered a lot of ground’. My search for the winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby ended right there.

Barbaro’s racetrack resume is short, but to me, he was the ultimate manifestation of the thoroughbred racehorse. He was talented and athletic and fast to be sure. But it was those brilliant bright eyes that let us look inside and revealed that incomparable spirit, that desire to conquer and vanquish his rivals. There was almost something human about Barbaro, and all the outpouring since May 20 leads me to believe a lot of other people sensed that too.

I was heartened whenever I saw video or photos of Barbaro during his recovery. He still had that look. Even though his legs could no longer carry him into battle, those sparkling eyes told me he was somehow the same horse. He had accepted his new challenge and was determined to beat it, just as he had beaten every single horse he was able to run against.

If I could see it, then I know the Jacksons and Dr. Richardson and the New Bolton staff could see it. As long as those eyes still illuminated the room, he had a chance.

I suspect after the last ditch surgery over the weekend, the lights faded off. Just as Barbaro’s eyes reflected his spirit and courage, telling his handlers it was ok to go on, they just as certainly told them the long fight was over.

At the press conference on the Monday of Barbaro’s death, Dr. Richardson said that Barbaro ‘had a lot of good days’ since his breakdown. I smiled when I heard that, teared up a bit too, to be perfectly honest.

Barbaro gave a lot of people a lot of good days. He has left us with the memories, the framed pictures, the disposable camera and cell phone photos, the mental images to hang on to and they will help us measure future immortality. It will no longer be enough for a horse to run fast and run far and win grade one after grade one by wide margins. From now they will have to show us inside, perhaps through the window of the eyes, perhaps in some other more subtle manner. Before we put another horse in the pantheon of true greatness, they must show us the same fortitude and class we saw in Barbaro.

I can only hope that I’ll be lucky enough to again see what I saw in Barbaro. And if that day should ever come, I hope I notice it the first time.

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Matt O'Neil has been a racing enthusiast since the mid-1980's. He is a freelance writer and thoroughbred marketing consultant and editor of the breeding journal Owner-Breeder International. Contact Matt O'Neil

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