There are times when horseracing can deceive men that the prosaic realities of life have been suspended. Barbaro had produced a celestial performance at Churchill Downs, his winning margin unmatched in nearly half a century.
On Saturday, the next chapter in the fable beckoned the unbeaten, unblemished colt to Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown. Success would deliciously heighten a national craving, unrequited since 1978, as he marched on to the Belmont Stakes.
He had galloped for less than a furlong when the illusion abruptly shattered. All of a sudden Edgar Prado was desperately trying to pull Barbaro up. The majestic animal was slowing into an ugly, crab-like stagger, dragging weight off his right hind leg. His injury would later be formally identified as a double fracture of the ankle. In the record crowd, an instant diagnosis could be made of 118,402 broken hearts.
It was a ghastly sequel to something that had happened only a minute earlier. Barbaro had been so full of life that he had broken out of his gate, requiring Prado to rein him in and take him back to be reloaded. Now here he was again, right in front of the Pimlico grandstand, but this time hopping in pain and confusion.
Matz charged on to the track, along with one of the colt's owners, Gretchen Jackson. "I'm sorry," Prado kept saying. She put her arm round him. The stricken colt, his leg cased in an inflatable cast, was loaded on to the ambulance. Many in the stands were weeping.
Dr Larry Bramlage, the course vet, knew immediately that Barbaro would never race again. "Keep your fingers crossed and say a prayer," he said. "It's a serious fracture and will require pretty major surgery. His career is over. This is life-threatening."
The colt was X-rayed and stabilised at his barn before being taken away for surgery. "Two weeks ago we were on such a high and this is our worst nightmare," Matz said. "Hopefully, everything will go well with the operation and we'll be able to save him."
The main problem is that horses are not tractable patients. A human would need six weeks in bed with a comparable fracture. Barbaro is a priceless stallion prospect, but for now such considerations belong too overtly to a world he had been transcending as a racehorse. Lest we forget, the Triple Crown mirage evaporated still more cruelly in 1999, when Charismatic won the Derby and the Preakness only to pull up with a similar injury in the Belmont, just three steps short of the line.
Any for whom the currency of glory had not been hopelessly devalued could salute another remarkable colt in the winner, Bernardini. What a pity for Sheikh Mohammed that he should find the American Classic winner he has coveted only in these poignant circumstances. While it is hardly rocket science to twin AP Indy, one of the top US stallions, with a Grade One winner, at least his stud managers have shown they can indeed breed a champion.
With Discreet Cat resuming in the Dwyer Stakes at Belmont on 4 July, the Sheikh's season remains laden with potential, whatever local difficulties Godolphin might be experiencing. Bernardini, a late developer, stayed unbeaten in winning by five and a half lengths.
The colt is trained by Tom Albertrani, once a key figure at Godolphin. Watching his own colt, Albertrani had not seen what had happened to Barbaro but his heart sank when he noticed Matz clattering down the stairs. John Ferguson, representing the Sheikh, spoke with characteristic grace afterwards. "We would have loved to see them battling down the straight together," he said. "Racing is a very small world and the Jacksons, Michael Matz and his team, they're all good friends of ours. We're all in the same business and we know how it feels."
Nick Zito, who saddled the third home, remembered the day he had the favourite in a Derby trial. "He was perfectly sound, and broke a sesamoid leaving the gate," he said. "These things happen that nobody could dream of. That's why I say you have to cherish the moment in racing."
Michael Trombetta, trainer of the runner-up, could not find any way to deal with the moment. "Give me a while before I say anything," he told reporters. "I just can't talk right now." Once again racing had been expelled from Eden.
Nap: Linda Green (Bath 3.00)