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Barbaro's Injury in Preakness Touches Millions, Raises Questions

by Suzanne Bush


A reporter for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette looks over tributes left for Barbaro at New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, PA.

"Things happen for a reason," Michael Matz of Unionville, PA said just days before the Preakness. "I just hope it's time now for a Triple Crown winner."

In the midst of the hype and media scrutiny that erupted after Barbaro's rousing victory in the Kentucky Derby, Matz, Barbaro's trainer, remained non-committal and reserved. This year, for a few glorious weeks in early spring, Barbaro was the horse of the moment. His owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson of West Grove, were living the impossible dream. The future for their beloved horse was brimming with possibilities. And then in the blink of an eye, everything changed. One tragic misstep erased the dreams and the promise and the joy of what had been a splendid spring.

Barbaro's injury has become a talking point for people who have widely divergent perspectives on horseracing, including breeders and innovators who are seeking ways to make racetracks safer for horses.

Some in the industry have said that Barbaro's injury, coupled with the failure of the racing industry to produce a Triple Crown winner since the 70s, point to short-sighted breeding programs that focus on speed instead of endurance. The grueling Triple Crown series, they believe, demonstrates how ill-prepared modern horses are for competition that demands both speed and endurance. The Associated Press reported that some breeders and racing observers believe that the modern thoroughbred is inherently weaker than its forbears, largely because of the drive for speed versus endurance.

Not Much Faster

Lawrence Soma, Professor of Anesthesia and Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, participated in a study of equine physiology conducted by the American Physiological Society. In the study's conclusions, Soma noted that "it doesn't look like breeding makes all that much difference," in the genetic makeup of today's racehorses, since they're all descendents of the same 30 or so horses. The study further concluded that "since the 1700s, horses have become a little faster, but not much." The 20th Century data from the Kentucky Derby reinforces that point. In 1900, Lieutenant Gibson won the Derby in a time of 2:06 2/5. In 1940, Gallahadion won in a time of 2:05. In 1970, Dust Commander won in 2:03 2/5. Only Secretariat (in 1973) and Monarchos (in 2001) broke the 2-minute barrier.

The promise of large stud fees is often cited as a reason why the more promising horses are raced less frequently. But the statistics don't necessarily reinforce that claim. While the number of races each horse runs is declining, that decline is more likely a function of the increase in the annual foal crops. According to The Jockey Club, in the decade from 1900-1909, there were 35,000 North American foals registered. By comparison, in the decade from 1990-1999, there were 375,289 foals registered.

Stud Fees

Critics say that the game is all about stud fees. While that may be so, an owner who buys a yearling, or pays to have a mare bred to a top stallion, makes a substantial investment. Add to that the cost of training, housing and transporting a horse until it can begin racing, and it's clear that the stud fees are only the beginning.

Entering horses in prestigious races is a costly venture as well. For instance, in the 2006 Kentucky Derby, the minimum entry fee for a horse was more than $50,000. That is just to enter the race ($25,000) and to go through the starting gate ($25,000). Nomination fees vary, depending on when the horse is nominated for the race. Early nominations cost $600 per horse. The deadline was Jan. 21, 2006. Late nominations (deadline: March 25, 2006) cost $6,000 per horse. While the purse for the winning horse—in this case, Barbaro—was more than $1.24 million, the fifth place horse won $60,000. Stud fees may be driving the racing industry, but it seems that the rising tide in this case has floated—or swamped—all boats. It's disingenuous to blame owners of promising stallions for wanting to maximize the value of their investments, and such a sweeping generalization ignores evidence that clearly demonstrates the great care many owners and trainers lavish on their horses, whether they're stud prospects or not.

Fair Hill

The lush pastures and gently rolling hills of Matz's training center in Fair Hill, MD provided comfort and peace for Barbaro. Matz wanted the horse to stay in his familiar routine and space as long as possible before shipping him off to Pimlico. "How simple can you make it?" he asked. "He relaxes here. He'll recuperate better here. He's used to it here."

More than 30 years ago in Great Britain, Martin Collins was searching for more reliable footing for his show jumpers. He created something called "Polytrack", a mixture of recycled rubber, synthetic fiber, sand and wax. The surface was so durable and forgiving that it gained the confidence of racetracks throughout England. Two years ago, Turfway Park in Florence, Kentucky resurfaced their track with Polytrack, and significantly reduced injuries to race horses. Elsewhere in Kentucky, Keeneland installed Polytrack on the training track around the same time, to the acclaim of jockeys and trainers. According to Michael Young, the Track Superintendent at Keeneland, the main track is being resurfaced now. "We really never had a lot of injuries on the training track," Young explained, but they did often have to close the track because of bad weather. "We lost one day of training last year. Compared to dirt, it's so much better." Whereas dirt becomes sloppy and unpredictable in rainy, wet weather, Polytrack drains and the footing doesn't change. Young said it will ultimately save the racetrack money, because "it's going to be easier to maintain and to take care of." Collins has formed a partnership with Keeneland to market the track surface in the United States.

Triple Crown

There's a whispered prayer "maybe this year," that rides along with promising three-year-olds as they gallop into history in pursuit of the Triple Crown. An avalanche of money and fame and glory comes along with the Triple Crown—seen by many as the supreme achievement in thoroughbred racing. But there are thousands of exceptional horses that never get into contention at the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness or the Belmont. For instance, Seabiscuit never won the Triple Crown. Nor did Ruffian. The Triple Crown has morphed into a kind of shorthand for achievement in breeding, training and racing. It's also a cunning marketing concept that too often cynically reduces untold investments—human and equine—to one small field comprised of winners and a much larger field of losers. If the racing industry were comprised only of the horses entered in prestigious races, there would be no racing industry.

The media painted a brilliant future for Barbaro in the weeks before the Preakness. Every aspect of his life and training regime was scrutinized relentlessly by reporters aching for a tidbit of information that had not been uttered or printed before. The truth is that there was not much new to report in the days leading up to the Preakness. Barbaro worked out, got bathed, grazed and walked around, as cameras rolled and reporters hunted for clues that they might be gazing at the next Triple Crown winner.

Today the warm embrace of Fair Hill's quiet paddocks and familiar trails leading to the race track must seem to Matz and his team as distant and unreachable as the farthest star in the galaxy. There's no device capable of measuring the depth and breadth of the convulsive grief that began with that one awkward step. From the sorrow felt by those who witnessed the catastrophe live or on television, to the lingering and painful "what ifs" that permeated breakfasts, brunches, and all kinds of social interactions in the days following the Preakness, it's clear that Barbaro's fate holds enormous symbolic meaning for hundreds of thousands of people.

There are no easy answers to the many questions that will define the future of thoroughbred racing. As Pennsylvania faces renewed interest in horse racing, because of the arrival of slots and the recent successes of horses with local ties, there are opportunities to consider strategies that might better protect the equines that are at the heart of the industry. From Smarty Jones, to Afleet Alex, to Barbaro, both racing fans and people who have never seen a live race found themselves embracing the horses and their futures. All of this attention is good for the sport, good for the region, good for the horses and the people who care for them.

Barbaro's fate will become clear in the weeks and months to come. Matz had said that many things make Barbaro special, "his heart, his ability and his will to win." Ironically, those gifts now sustain both the horse and the people who love him most.