Out of Preakness Tragedy, a Legacy
Saturday, May 19, 2007
For Alex Brown, only the mornings are normal now. The lanky Brit still begins his days on the back of a thoroughbred racehorse, savoring the muffled thrum of hooves on the practice track. As an exercise jockey at the Fair Hill Training Center near Elkton, Brown has made this his pre-breakfast routine for 20 years.
But not much else in his life is quite the same as it was before that day, one year ago, when a Fair Hill-trained horse named Barbaro pulled up with a shattered leg in the Preakness Stakes and became one of the most famous lame horses in history.
"My days are all about Barbaro now," Brown said last week as he waited to do a phone interview with a Kentucky radio station on the horse welfare efforts of a group of Barbaro fans. After that, he would spend the afternoon tending the several Barbaro Web sites and discussion boards he has been running for the past year. They get more than 1,700 messages a day from what Brown calls "the Fans of Barbaro."
As today's Preakness race at Pimlico approaches, horse racing reform efforts, veterinary fundraising and general equine zeal continue to spin out from the massive gathering of interest around the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner's highly public fight to survive -- what might be called the Barbaro Effect.
"We all thought it was going to fade after January 29th," the day Barbaro was euthanized, Brown said. "But it's bigger now than it was when he was still alive. I'm spending seven or eight hours a day on all this."
According to observers, the impact includes a move toward safer synthetic racing surfaces at tracks, a sexier image for large-animal medicine as a career choice, an increase in adoptions for neglected horses and new research into laminitis, the foot ailment that finally led to Barbaro being put down.
"I'm really amazed that it's taken hold the way that it has," said Gretchen Jackson, who co-owned Barbaro with her husband, Roy. "A lot of the fans have just jumped up and grabbed some of these ideas. It seems to have momentum, still."
The strongest echo of the Barbaro saga may be the emotion it continues to inspire. Jackson said she still gets at least 10 letters a week from heartbroken fans. Barbaro's dam, La Ville Rouge -- who recently gave birth to his brother -- received scores of Mother's Day cards this month at the farm where she lives in Kentucky, Jackson said. And hundreds of buffs attended Barbaro birthday parties at racecourses across the country last month.
With that devotion in mind, Preakness organizers are paying elaborate homage to the horse that will be forever linked to Pimlico's signature race. They have renamed one of today's pre-Preakness races the Barbaro Stakes. After it's over, Air Force parachutists will jump carrying a blue and green flag, the colors of Barbaro's Lael Stables. Fans can buy "Riding With Barbaro" wristbands, plastic Barbaro model kits and copies of NBC's tribute DVD, "Barbaro: A Nation's Horse."
But even more lasting than Barbaro's sentimental legacy is likely to be the record of reforms being pushed in his name.
"I think what Barbaro has done is show that the American people really do care about horses," said Stacey Hancock, a longtime activist in the campaign to shut down the few remaining U.S. meat processors that slaughter an estimated 100,000 horses a year for human consumption, mostly for export to Europe and Asia. She credits Barbaro enthusiasts with a surge of interest in the cause, including a vote last week by the Illinois Senate to close a slaughterhouse there.
Racehorse safety has also received attention. Barbaro's home turf, Fair Hill, recently replaced one of its dirt tracks with a softer synthetic surface called Tapeta, becoming one of growing number of courses to make the switch.
"When horse safety became so front and center, we decided it was time to do it," said Fair Hill General Manager Sally Goswell of the $1.8 million upgrade.
And in June, on the birthday of Barbaro's jockey, Edgar Prado, fans are organizing fundraisers through Brown's Web site to benefit what racers call "the backstretch," the communities of grooms and stall cleaners, mostly Hispanic, who live with their families in often poor conditions amid the stables. The fans' donations will go to Anna House, a backstretch charity at Belmont Park, which recently received a $250,000 gift from the Jacksons.
"Barbaro has really given all of us a good kick in the withers," Brown said. "Horse racing can't just do things the same old way. People care now. People are looking."
The emergence of what Brown calls "all things Barbaro" began almost instantly after the horse's televised accident last May. With veterinarians still surrounding the distressed animal, Brown noted the surge of hits on the Barbaro page he had recently started on his boss's Web site, http:/
Eventually, the Jacksons noticed Brown's efforts and asked him to lead Barbaro on occasional exercise walks.
Brown's Web site quickly became a daily read for Barbaro fanatics. One of the discussion sites Brown launched became a clearinghouse for horse rescue groups seeking money and homes for neglected or unwanted horses. The groups have placed more than 750 horses since September, Brown said, raising more than $350,000 in PayPal donations.
"In the spirit of Barbaro, I recently bought a neglected 3-year-old who the owners were going to send to a low-end auction," reads a letter to Brown from a California participant. "Barbaro's spirit lives on in horses such as this. Without him, they would be either dead or living a terrible life."
Probably no institution has seen its fortunes boosted by Barbaro more than the New Bolton Center, a 30-minute drive north through horse country from Fair Hill.
The Jacksons, who were nearly daily visitors to the hospital during their horse's eight-month stay, recently endowed the vet school with a $3 million chair in the name of Dean Richardson, Barbaro's lead doctor. A new laminitis research fund has raised more than $327,000. And the Barbaro Fund, launched by an anonymous donor, has so far gathered more than $1.5 million for the center to use on upgrades and animal care.
"Aren't they cool?" asked Jane Simone, Bolton's director of development, as she pointed out the massive new surgical lights and the refurbished equine operating table in one of the school's operating theaters last week. The lights cast a bright glare on the drowsy black horse that was being winched up off the table.
Even better than the new equipment, Simone said later, standing in the lobby near an oil painting of the center's most famous patient, was the worldwide exposure Barbaro gave to the center's medical wizardry. The school has won a higher profile among health scientists, she said, and seen a jump in the number of highly qualified applicants.
"There's almost nothing now we can't do for animals that we can do for people," said Simone. "That was a message that we struggled to get out. But Barbaro did that for us. His legacy really is incalculable."