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Bill Dwyre

A Tragic Day Right Out of Gate

May 21, 2006|Bill Dwyre

BALTIMORE — In the time it takes for two bones to break, like snapping your fingers twice, the 131st running of the Preakness turned from celebration to catastrophe.

Seconds out of the starting gate, the horse that was to fight for the first Triple Crown in 28 years was now fighting for his life. Pimlico race track, decked out for its annual moment and flying high with a crowd of 118,402 on a sunny, warm day, became a punctured blimp. Huge waves of anticipation that had carried the horses to the gate, building momentum like an airplane engine, were replaced by waves of disbelief.

Oh, my, a horse had broken down. Oh, my, it couldn't be Barbaro, could it?

Many in the huge crowd were there just to party. Many more were there because they loved the sport and followed it closely. All had one thing in common: They knew that when a thoroughbred breaks its leg, that often ends its life.

On the track, Alex Solis, on second choice Brother Derek running just behind and to the right, heard the cracking sound coming from Barbaro's right hind leg. He knew immediately what had happened and instinctively pulled his horse to the right to yank him out of harm's way. The energy used in that move, the sudden muscle tightening, left Brother Derek lacking when it was time to make his run down the stretch at eventual winner Bernardini. Brother Derek finished a beaten fourth.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 24, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Horse racing: In Sunday's Sports section, a story talking about Barbaro's injury said there were a few more races on the card after the Preakness. There was only one race afterward.

Almost hauntingly, the night before, over a dinner of Maryland crab, Solis had talked about the worst thing about horse racing, when he sees a horse break its leg.

"You see the pain in their eyes, the fear," he said. "It's awful."

As the horses ran by the foundering Barbaro, jockey Edgar Prado struggled to pull him up, to minimize the damage. Just before he came to a full stop, Barbaro flung his head wildly, in obvious pain. As the race continued around the first stretch, the outriders dashed toward the stricken Barbaro while Prado jumped off and did his best to keep the reins tight and the horse calm.

Quickly, before the horses still racing had reached the middle of the backstretch, the white van with the red cross on it was motoring down the main straightaway. Those who hadn't quite figured out the severity of the event now knew. The sign on the side of the van read: Equine Ambulance.

As Prado hung on to Barbaro, waiting for help, memories rushed back of the 1999 Belmont, and jockey Chris Antley cradling the broken leg of Charismatic, who had made a misstep just yards beyond the finish line while finishing third in his quest for a Triple Crown. Last year in this race, Jeremy Rose hung on and steadied the horse as Afleet Alex, cut off and knocked to his knees, somehow recovered and went on to win.

Nearby, as Barbaro was tended to, Cisco Alvarado, exercise rider for Brother Derek, hovered, ready to help. Two days ago, Brother Derek had caused an ugly wound on Alvarado's hand when he bit his finger. Alvarado had sloughed it off.

He was like all of them, tiny men in the service of huge animals.

Antley was credited with keeping Charismatic calm, with saving his life. Rose may have contributed to the same outcome for Afleet Alex. Now, all Prado could do was hang on and pray.

It had been a hauntingly strange day for Barbaro. Trained at a plush facility an hour or so away, he didn't even arrive here until Friday afternoon and had only one easy gallop on the Pimlico track that would, a day later, perhaps claim his life.

And hours before the race, an expert on such things, retired jockey Jerry Bailey, was telling a TV audience that he had walked past Barbaro's barn and noticed the horse pacing and looking uncomfortable.

"If he was really thrashing around, that would really be bad," Bailey said. "But what he is doing now isn't good."

Then, like an Olympic sprinter false-starting out of the blocks, Barbaro broke early from the gate and had to be pulled up, ushered back around and reloaded. That happens, but not often in a race of this caliber. Nor did anyone say afterward that the injury might have happened there.

There were a few more races on the card after the Preakness, but the place emptied out fast. Most left in silence, some in tears. If they were old enough and had followed racing long enough, they had thoughts of Ruffian, or of Go For Wand, both terrible breakdowns in high-profile races.

Trainers such as Brother Derek's Dan Hendricks quickly gave the day its proper perspective.

"What happened was just terrible," he said. "When I saw it happen, it didn't matter to me where my horse finished."

Gary Stevens, longtime jockey and current NBC analyst, said he had experienced horses breaking down under him so many times that he couldn't even speculate on a number.

"But this was such a special horse," Stevens said. "I cannot imagine having that happen to me with one of my Derby horses."

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