Story of the Decade: Barbaro Captures the Heart of a Nation

No story in the past decade transcended the Sport of Kings more than Barbaro’s eight-month struggle to survive, during which he had to undergo major surgeries and numerous procedures, and live in constant discomfort. All of America became engrossed in his story, and each time Barbaro battled back he reached deeper into people’s hearts, whether they knew anything about racing or horses. To everyone, he became a symbol of courage and determination.

The following is an editorial that was printed in The Blood-Horse magazine and following Barbaro’s death. It is my tribute to a gallant warrior, who united a nation in hope, prayer, and admiration.

Fairy tales are not supposed to have unhappy endings. Barbaro was to leave New Bolton Medical Center, walking soundly with his head held high, and live happily ever after. But Thoroughbreds, despite the fairy tales they inspire, live in a different realm than Walt Disney.

So, on the morning of Jan. 29, Dr. Dean W. Richardson, head of surgery at New Bolton Medical Center, made the somber announcement most everyone had been prepared to hear more than eight months earlier. Barbaro had been euthanized. The wave of grief that was anticipated back then now came swiftly and unexpectedly.

After so many months of hope and high expectations, Barbaro’s fight for life and the miracle story he had written were over. One did not have to hear Richardson’s words to know they were as heavy as the millions of hearts around the world that had embraced Barbaro and his struggle to survive.

What made the news of Barbaro’s death even harder to accept was that only a month earlier, talk had begun about the colt’s possible release from New Bolton. When Richardson, although still guarded, said that Barbaro’s release could come in the “not so distant future,” it brought a wave of elation and optimism. The horse was happy, eating, and enjoying his daily walks and grazing sessions. Christmas brought a deluge of cards and gifts to New Bolton, and spirits were high.

But just a month later, Dr. Richardson and owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson were forced to come to the realization that they had run out of miracles.

Having witnessed live the shocking breakdown of Ruffian and the horrific spills of Go for Wand and Pine Island, it is difficult to come to terms with the question: which is worse, watching the quick, relatively painless deaths of those magnificent fillies, or riding the roller-coaster of emotions that continued for more than eight months with Barbaro, ultimately leading to the same fate?

The answer, at least in Barbaro’s case, is the latter. The colt proved that greatness does not have to be achieved only on the racetrack. His incredible will and indefatigable spirit kept him alive long enough to show the world just how much emotion is capable of pouring out of one’s heart for a Thoroughbred racehorse, and how far the field of veterinary medicine has come. It just hasn’t come quite far enough; maybe it never will.

It was not disease or injury that ended Barbaro’s life; it was recovery. If there is a flaw in nature’s power of healing, it is that it cannot be applied to the Thoroughbred, to whom the words stationary and prone do not co-exist. Infused with the fiery blood of its ancestors, the Thoroughbred’s impetuous nature sadly is in constant conflict with its fragile legs, and it is that nature that often leads to its demise.

Rather than dwell on the outcome, it is best to concentrate on the heroic efforts that were made to save a horse that lived eight months longer than he was supposed to. It is best to concentrate on an unknown veterinarian, whose dedication, wit, and wisdom turned him into a James Herriot-like figure.

But what of future incidents of this nature regarding high-profile horses? Had Barbaro lived, similar efforts likely would have been made. But when Barbaro died, hope died with him, and without hope, you have to wonder if owners will be willing to invest the money and emotions needed to save a horse with this type of catastrophic injury. To come this close and defy such long odds, it would be a shame if others didn’t follow in the footsteps paved by Barbaro and Dr. Richardson.

Although Barbaro had to endure a great deal of physical and mental anguish, he also experienced the ultimate in human kindness and compassion, while being pampered like the noblest of kings. And he leaves behind a legacy that far transcends his stunning victory in the Kentucky Derby.

Cervantes said, “The guts carry the feet, not the feet the guts.” Barbaro’s guts carried his feet to victory after victory. But they carried his heart a lot farther.

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