I had watched no more than five horses races in my life. I'd gone to the track a couple of times and did some riding only if you count birthday ponies. So, on that Saturday afternoon, it was only by chance that I had clicked on the Preakness just as it was about to begin. The Preakness, with grandstands, an ocean of blue and white seersucker suits and Aquascutum skirts, the contingent of the holy cloister of horse land, who ride on the weekend, subscribe to Equine Monthly and can rattle off a horse's bloodline back to Cain's first pony.
Even given my flat line interest in the sport, I couldn't resist the start of the race. I sat down and watched, as nine adrenalin-pumped thoroughbreds were loaded like bullets into the starting gates. The jockeys were whispering last minute encouragements to their mounts as trainers coaxed them into a sort of frenzied concentration. The 131st running of the Preakness was about to begin.
The first bell was a false start. Now, these 1000-pound running machines, all with their pedals already punched to the floor, had to be brought to a dead stop with nothing more than a pull on the reins by a guy who weighed less than a packed suitcase. After their screeching halt, the stoked-up beasts had to be reloaded into the gates. The second bell was clean and someone must have yelled "They're off and running!"
The horses had barely emerged from their dusty, brown cloud when one of them pulled up short, as if by another the false start. The TV announcer, the camera and many of the spectators seemed unsure whether to follow the pack of horses running for the first turn or the solitary horse, standing three-legged on the sidelines, his right hind leg curled up toward his body.
Almost immediately, trainers, veterinarians and track officials swarmed around the injured horse. The camera was now tracking the race, but many eyes were still focused on the horse on the grassy field, just 30 yards up from the starting gates. The finish of the race seemed like an afterthought: the winner, Bernardini by name, paid $10.60, but garnered little attention, a footnote to history, like the second flyer to make a solo flight across the Atlantic. The crowd was still on its feet. I could hear soft sobbing and whispers and maybe the sound of a single emotion caught in 10,000 throats, mine included. The horse's name, I had just learned, was Barbaro, this year's favorite to win the Preakness.
I thought about Barbaro throughout the day, wondering if he would he ever race again. Barbaro was big news on Sunday. There were numerous replays of the horses bursting from the gates, Barbaro beginning his gallop and then pulling up short, already in a sweat, shuddering and shaking his head. In the last frames of film, I looked into his eyes. I saw the agony of an animal unable to understand the wrenching pain that was shooting up his hind leg.
For the rest of the week, the New York Times held only one interest for me: Barbaro's condition. The injury was to his fetlock and was severe. He had a team of veterinarians working with medical systems that might be the envy of the Mayo Clinic. Barbaro was given a 50% chance to live. Certainly he would never race again. The best possible outcome for him would be to walk without pain. Still, as I understood it, even with limited mobility, a thoroughbred, especially a horse with Barbaro's genes, could spend the rest of his long life indulging his desires on a stud farm, easily earning the keep for himself and his owners.
How little I knew about the strict rules that govern 'Horse land.' Rules that require a stud horse to romance his intended exactly as it is done in nature. No in vitro fertilizations. No cranes. No slings. Violation of these commandments would make any of Barbaro' s issue ineligible to race in any sanctioned derby, claiming stakes or two-horse race to the corner. Barbaro's fate, like every other contest he entered, was riding on his own four legs.
The weeks flipped by with fewer reports about Barbaro's recovery. His medical team released a statement indicating that he was in stable condition, showing interest in both his feed and the neighborhood mares. They were reassuring but included the Black Jack player's ' Insurance bet,' always reporting that they were "Cautiously optimistic" about his future.
It had been three months since Barbaro's injury. The world had moved on to more serious matters. But there were some people, myself included, who were still obsessed with Barbaro's condition. The question loomed; how was this magnificent horse brought so low? By what? A smooth pebble? A muscle twitch? A half moment of distraction? If that's all it took to bring down perfection, what about the rest of us negotiating our way down our own crooked trail? It was genuine compassion I felt when I had looked into Barbaro's eyes, but part of it, an unsettling reminder that the unfathomable nature of fate applies to all, man and beast alike.
In mid-July, Barbaro's recovery had a setback. The three broken bones in his leg had to be reset. After the operation, his interest in feed and the neighboring mares had not returned as quickly as before. His chances for recovery were still set at 50%. It was a prognosis that may have been more hope than truth. Despite heroic efforts, Barbaro was euthanized on January 30, 2007.
The 137th running of the Preakness will take place on the third Saturday in May.
I'll be watching, as I have every year since 2006, when Barbaro stumbled before the first turn. I have no favorite in the Preakness, so it doesn't matter to me which horse is first to cross the finish line. What will matter is that eventually, all of them do.