Whatever the Surface, He Only Scratched It

By Andrew Beyer
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Unlike movies and books about the sport, real-life horse racing does not often produce stories with happy and satisfying endings. Modern thoroughbreds are so fragile that people who spend their lives around the animals always brace themselves for the worst outcomes.

But even for the most hardened racetrackers, the death of Barbaro yesterday was a painful and depressing loss. The catastrophic injury that the colt suffered in the Preakness, followed by his euthanization eight months later, constituted a double blow.

The injury robbed the sport of a horse who might have been one of the best of modern times, one who had the potential to accomplish feats without precedent. His death cost the thoroughbred world a stallion who might have made a lasting imprint on his species.

Now we can only speculate: What kind of racehorse or stallion could Barbaro have been? How will history remember him?

It is almost impossible to make a definitive assessment of a horse whose career ends too soon. Three other recent Triple Crown contenders -- Afleet Alex (2005), Smarty Jones (2004) and Point Given (2001) -- were retired prematurely, and their places in racing history are uncertain. Barbaro accomplished no more than any of the three; his reputation rests principally on his victory in the Kentucky Derby. His winning margin was the largest in 50 years, but he beat a below-average group of 3-year-olds and his winning time, while good, was not extraordinary.

Yet I believe Barbaro was better than any of the above-named colts and was very likely the best American 3-year-old since Spectacular Bid. He accomplished his Derby victory so authoritatively that the performance only hinted at his ability on dirt. But what made him extraordinary was the fact that he was probably a better racehorse on grass. He won his three turf starts by a combined total of 21 lengths, unleashing in each of them a dazzling acceleration in the stretch. His victory in the Laurel Futurity might have been the best performance ever by an American 2-year-old on the grass.

Because U.S. dirt racing favors speed, and turf racing favors horses who can finish strongly, it is rare for a horse to excel on both surfaces. (The last runner who was a champion on both dirt and turf was John Henry in 1981.) Because of Barbaro's versatility, I expected that a sweep of the Triple Crown would be only the beginning of his historic feats. He had the talent to go to Europe for one of that continent's great turf races -- such as the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe -- and beat the Europeans at their own game, something no American-based runner has done.

Of course, all of this is speculation. So, too, is any assessment of what Barbaro might have accomplished at stud, for the breeding business is even less predictable than the racing game. But the potential was there. Barbaro "would have been a superstar sire prospect," said pedigree expert Bill Oppenheim.

The American breeding industry has become so obsessed by speed that there are few major stallions who impart stamina to their offspring. Barbaro had abundant speed, but he also had the stamina and the genes to make him a great sire of classic horses. (His sire, Dynaformer, is one of the rare prominent American stallions who dependably begets long-distance runners.) Moreover, Barbaro's pedigree would have made a perfect fit with the many high-class mares who are descendants of Northern Dancer. He would have been in keen demand. "People would have flocked to breed to him," said Ray Paulick, editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse magazine.

Even with his racing career ended prematurely, Barbaro might have validated himself with his subsequent performance at stud. Other horses -- such as Raise A Native and Danzig -- never got the chance to show their full potential on the track, but they became prepotent stallions and are remembered decades later. Without the opportunity to be a sire, what will Barbaro's legacy be?

He will, of course, be remembered as a horse who captured the public's interest more than any thoroughbred in at least 20 years. And he will be remembered for helping to show the very best aspects of the sport.

When Barbaro broke down in the Preakness and was precariously trying to stand on his three good legs, a nationwide television audience witnessed horse racing at its worst. But over the next eight months, America saw the extraordinary devotion to the horse by his owners, his trainer and especially the veterinary team in the New Bolton Center in Pennsylvania. Dean Richardson was everything that a human patient could want from his own doctor -- capable, honest, realistic, compassionate and totally dedicated.

Critics of horse racing often say that owners and trainers exploit the animals in their care, but Barbaro's final eight months demonstrated the usual nature of these relationships. People in the sport love these fragile creatures and are devastated when they are hurt.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company