Racing: The horse that won America

The cruel fate of rising star Barbaro highlights the often-brutal conditions of a sport in which horses have increasingly short-lived careers before being retired - or put down

It was a cool, clear Saturday afternoon in late spring, perfect for racing. A record crowd of 118,402 fans had gathered at the Pimlico track near Baltimore to witness a three-year-old bay colt that seemed touched by God.

A fortnight earlier, Barbaro had won the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown that is one of the most elusive dreams of American sport, in record-breaking style. Now, as he went for the second leg, the $1m Preakness stakes, anything seemed possible; the most enthusiastic were comparing him to Secretariat, the Triple Crown winner of 1973 and generally considered the greatest American thoroughbred of the modern era.

But in an instant, exhilaration turned to horror. The horses had barely covered 100 yards of the one mile, three-furlongs distance when it was plain that something terrible had happened. Suddenly Barbaro was staggering on three legs, and his jockey Edgar Prado was desperately trying to pull up the horse and dismount, before further damage was done. Everyone present, and tens of millions more watching on television, was stunned. At trackside, spectators screamed in horror.

Horseracing is a thrilling but brutal sport, where no quarter is asked or given. It is dangerous too - both for the tiny jockeys perched on creatures weighing half a ton, barging and hurtling down a track at 40mph, and for the animals themselves, more finely tuned and tended to than any racing car. Unlike cars however, both horses and jockeys have feelings. The bond between the two is extraordinary, and in times of crisis this bond extends to the entire racing community - and on a day like last Saturday, it seemed, to half the nation.

How good was Barbaro? Maybe he would have been another Secretariat, maybe not. But the question is now unanswerable and pointless. What heights would the Manchester United prodigy Duncan Edwards have scaled, had he not died in the 1958 Munich air crash? What might the racing driver Mike Hawthorn have achieved, had he not been killed in a crash on the Guildford bypass a few months after winning his single championship that same year? Barbaro falls into the same category, of immense promise unfulfilled. "We can't worry about beating Barbaro," said Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Like Now, another runner in the Preakness, on the eve of the race. "He's got to beat himself because he's the best horse." Little did McLaughlin know how soon and how devastatingly his prophecy would be fulfilled. As the nine runners burst from the gate, there was no hint of trouble. What happened next was a freakish stroke of awful luck, as for no apparent reason, Barbaro took a bad step. The result was a right hind leg shattered in 20 places. Imagine a basketball player landing badly after a jump shot and breaking an ankle, or a footballer who catches his studs in the turf and tears a cruciate ligament in the knee. Except that this was far, far worse - so bad that had it been any other horse, in any other race, the animal would have been destroyed on the spot.

Equine leg breaks are often impossible to repair. Unlike humans, horses cannot lie down for extended periods. Instinctively, they want to move - but movement only prevents the break, or breaks, from mending. A fracture upsets the delicate distribution of pressure between the animal's delicate, slender legs, reaching 5,000lbs on a hind leg when a horse is in full flight. Legs that have to bear more weight often develop laminitis, or founder: an acutely painful inflammation that can lead to the hoof separating from the coffin bone in the leg.

In this case, Barbaro was taken some 50 miles to the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Centre for Large Animals, one the finest equine hospitals in the world. There the broken bones were repaired with a pin and the insertion of 23 screws, in an operation lasting five hours. Afterwards, the anaesthetised Barbaro was placed in sling and suspended in a pool, to avoid further jarring injury as he came around.

By then an outpouring of public sympathy had already begun. This is not the first accident to prove the extraordinary hold a horse can gain on the collective human imagination. The very words Devon Loch, the Queen Mother's horse that inexplicably broke down a few yards short of the winning post in the 1956 Grand National, remain a synonym for unexpected last-second disaster. Two decades earlier in the US, the gritty little Seabiscuit, with his never-say-die spirit and repeated upsetting of the odds, had became a symbol of hope in the Depression era. At the height of his fame, it was said, he drew as many column inches in the newspapers as President Franklin Roosevelt.

Barbaro will never achieve such celebrity. But yesterday his fate was front-page news in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Outside the New Bolton Centre some well-wishers waited in their cars. Other fans left bunches of flowers. There were signs proclaiming simply, "Good Luck, Barbaro".

A day after the operation, the immediate danger seemed over. Barbaro was said to be "extremely comfortable," and tucking into his hay. But a cautiously hopeful Dean Richardson, chief surgeon at New Bolton, warned that the horse's chances of coming through were still only 50/50.

Months of minutely supervised recuperation will be needed before the risk of infection, and of further damage to the injured limb, or to Barbaro's other hind leg (which now has to bear a disproportionate share of weight) can be definitely said to be over.

Only then will Barbaro be able to do what he has been kept alive to do, and perform as a breeding stallion. Had he won the Preakness and the Belmont stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown, he might have commanded a stud fee of $100,000 a time. As it is, owners who want Barbaro as a sire will still have to pay $40,000 a session. The horse will never race again, but his potential earning power still runs into the tens of millions of dollars.

Even so, there is no hiding the disaster that last weekend represents - not just for Barbaro's connections, but for the entire sport. In terms of public interest, racing has been in long-term decline. Even the quest for the Triple Crown is a sub-plot of the American sporting spring, largely obscured by NBA basketball playoffs and the first storylines of the young baseball season.

It is 33 years since Secretariat's heroics. The last Triple Crown went to Affirmed in 1978, third of three in the space of six years. The current dry spell is the longest since the feat was first achieved by Sir Barton in 1919. Since 1978, no fewer than 10 horses have won the first two legs, but the supreme prize has eluded everyone.

Theories abound as to why the Triple Crown has become so difficult. Some say the three races are too close together, held in the space of just five weeks and placing an intolerable burden on a young horse who may only have raced half a dozen times in his or her life. But that excuse scarcely applies in the case of Barbaro. Stamina and toughness are in his bloodlines. His preparation and training had been built around the Triple Crown schedule. Had the appalling injury occurred later in the race, coming off the turn or in the straight, weariness might have been a factor - but not after just 100 yards from a horse so charged up for the occasion that he burst from the starting gate before the off. Others contend that star thoroughbreds are simply not made like they used to be. The decline (if such it is) is sometimes ascribed to the loss of some prime bloodstock to Europe. Others say top-tier horses are too cossetted, prisoners of the colossal stud values that make a long career on the track a risk too far.

But the consequences are unarguable. Over the years it has become harder for ordinary punters to identify with racing. These days, a top thoroughbred usually flashes across the sport's firmament, before retiring after less than a dozen races. Never again will there be a Seabiscuit, who raced 35 times as a three-year-old. Had Barbaro won the Triple Crown, almost certainly he would never have graced a track again.

In the event, the 2006 Preakness was won by a very good horse called Bernardini. In Barbaro's abrupt absence he trounced the field, and some experts reckon his winning time on Saturday was better than Barbaro's in the Kentucky Derby a fortnight before, which only adds to the piquancy of events at Pimlico. Had Barbaro not sustained his shocking injury, this might have been a Preakness for the ages. But after what happened, no one really cared very much. As for Bernardini, he may not even run in the Belmont.

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