BALTIMORE — Losing would have been cruel enough.
Fate had something worse in store for a promising colt named Barbaro, and a handful of people with a lifetime of ambitions invested in him.
A hundred yards up the track at Pimlico Race Course, on a picture-postcard- perfect afternoon, one of the saddest dramas in sports played out. It’s an all-too-familiar scene in the thoroughbred game, even in the biggest races, made all the more memorable by a short list of names and a long trail of tears:
Union City broke down in the 1993 Preakness, the first fatal accident in the Triple Crown series since Black Hills in the Belmont Stakes 34 years earlier. Prairie Bayou, who won that 1993 Preakness, went down in the Belmont. Charismatic pulled up lame a few strides after finishing third in the 1999 Belmont.
Go For Wand, perhaps the saddest scene of all, stumbled to the dirt in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff and threw her jockey before staggering to the finish line. She was lowered to the track a second time and euthanized on the spot, then buried in the infield at Saratoga the next day.
In 1982, the victim was Timely Writer in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The most devastating breakdown of all might have been Ruffian, the filly star who broke down on the backstretch in a match race against the colt Foolish Pleasure.
Trainer Michael Matz raced out onto the track and to Barbaro’s side just seconds after the finish. His face was ashen — and this is a man not easily given to emotion. Nearly 17 years ago, Matz rescued three kids from the burning fuselage of an airplane that crashed in an Iowa cornfield.
On this day, slowing to a walk, Matz surveyed the scene as attending veterinarian Dr. Dan Dreyfuss and the ambulance staff tried to quiet his horse. Nearby, Peter Brette, Matz’s assistant and a former rider himself, embraced jockey Edgar Prado, whose quick thinking in pulling Barbaro up saved the horse considerable pain and may yet save his life. But Prado wasn’t quite so steely. He could barely contain his tears a moment later when he walked over and struggled to tell owner Gretchen Jackson, “I’m sorry, “I’m sorry.” Then he walked off in a daze.
A woman wailed, “No,” over and over, then shrieked, “Don’t put him down, I’ll buy the horse!”
Behind her, a knot of grown-ups covered their faces or wiped away tears. Some simply averted their eyes.
Matz, meanwhile, waited until the ambulance made its way onto the track and carried off Barbaro, then wheeled around and walked fast, his face a tightly drawn mask. The trip took him past winning trainer Tom Albertrani and the celebrating connections of Preakness champion Bernardini, past Dan Hendricks, the trainer of Brother Derek, who sat in his wheelchair with a hand covering his mouth, then through the grandstand and to the stall where the ambulance was parked.
The only sign of where Matz had just been, and the agony he’d just suffered, was a powdering of track dust across the left shoulder of his black suit.
Alongside the barn, Gretchen Jackson was consoled by some friends.
“It’s sad,” she said. “We weren’t expecting this. Being beaten, yes. But we didn’t expect him to be injured.”
A reporter standing nearby said, “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sure you are,” Jackson said. “Because you probably loved him as much as we did.
“You had to love him,” she said, “if you followed him.”
No trainer has lost more high-profile
horses to injuries than D. Wayne Lukas, whose toughest stretch was bookended by the fates that befell Union City and Charismatic. In between, the roster of his runners that had to be retired reads like an all-star team: Preakness winners Tabasco Cat and Timber Country; Derby winners Thunder Gulch and Grindstone; and a champion juvenile filly named Flanders.
Lukas’ horsemanship and his judgment were called into question the day Charismatic went down.
His response at the time: “The only critics I have to worry about are my owners. ... I can’t worry about what people say.”
The racing game isn’t about to change. Not when it relies on a steady stream of 3-year-olds who will test the limits of their endurance at a stage when they are as high-strung as teenagers and just as unfinished.
Matz was criticized for being too soft, for racing Barbaro too lightly. The strapping bay colt had run just five times before winning the Derby. He took five weeks off before arriving at Churchill Downs, and eight weeks off before his final prep race.
No one can say with certainty which approach is better, only that both occasionally fail the horses they are designed to protect.
“You never expect it,” Jackson said, “or you’d never do anything in life.”