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Sunday, Feb. 4, 2007


Barbaro's incredible will to live provided lesson for all

"Animals and children are the only pure things in life."

Jack Gallagher

I was reminded of that quote when I heard about the recent death of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro following a heroic, eight-month battle for survival after the bay colt suffered a severe injury in the Preakness Stakes last May.

Race horses are incredible specimens. So fast and strong yet at the same time strikingly fragile.

One misstep can mean the difference between life and death, as we know all too well.

While Barbaro is in the record books for his victory at Churchill Downs, his true mark on this world will be for all of the people around the globe that he inspired with his amazing will to live.

I have thought about the 3-year-old thoroughbred a lot over the past several months.

Every time I read a story about him having another surgery, making progress, or suffering a setback, I shook my head at how he could continue to endure.

News photo
Barbaro, seen here winning the Kentucky Derby last year, was undefeated in his brief career, but will always be remembered for his brave fight for survival after being injured in the Preakness Stakes. AP PHOTO

As most people know, a horse is frequently euthanized within minutes of breaking a leg on the track. There are very few who even make it back to the stable.

Even though it has been more than 30 years now, I can vividly remember watching the famous match race between Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure and the prized filly Ruffian on television back in 1975.

All the hype that preceded the race died in sorrow when Ruffian broke down on the back stretch at Belmont Park and was immediately put down.

The sight of Foolish Pleasure racing the rest of the way alone to the finish line is an image that has always stayed with me.

Barbaro was fortunate to receive some of the most progressive treatment ever attempted to keep a horse alive, but that alone is not what kept him going for such a long period.

He clearly had an inner strength that was extraordinary.

Though the chances for Barbaro's long-term survival were always very dicey, the epic fight he waged will clearly benefit other horses with similar injuries in the future. His tale is a case study that will be examined for years to come.

He immediately was moved to University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center for Large Animals in Kennett Square, Pa., and went through numerous operations and rehabilitation there under the watchful eye of Dr. Dean Richardson.

In spite of the admirable efforts of the staff there, Barbaro simply could not overcome the combination of his original injury -- shattering three bones in his right hind leg -- and ultimately developing laminitis in his other three legs.

I was really moved by the outpouring of affection for Barbaro following his injury at Pimlico.

The way people rallied around this injured horse, who was born at Sanborn Chase at Springmint Farm in Kentucky, was refreshing considering the times we are living in.

The New Bolton Center received thousands of gifts, cards, and e-mails for Barbaro, many from youngsters.

"I just can't explain why everyone is so caught up in this horse," co-owner Roy Jackson was quoted as saying during Barbaro's long struggle. "Everything is so negative now in the world, people love animals and I think they just happen to latch onto him."

Taking one look at Richardson and Barbaro's co-owner, Gretchen Jackson, at Monday's press conference, after the horse had been put down, the word "shattered" came to mind.

The pair had clearly been through a great deal together with this ordeal and were devastated by the finality of it.

On Thursday, the racing industry formed the Barbaro Memorial Fund to raise money for laminitis -- caused by uneven weight distribution in the limbs -- and other equine health issues.

"Gretchen and I hope Barbaro's memory can be carried on through advances in medical research, including a cure for laminitis," Roy Jackson said in a statement after the announcement of the fund.

Barbaro's legacy will not be what he did on the track, where he was unbeaten in the six races he finished, and earned more than $2 million, but rather what he did off it.

In the end, he impacted more people than he ever could have even if he had won the Triple Crown.

There will be storybooks written about his valiant battle against the odds.

Even though he is gone now, Barbaro will continue to be a shining example for the biggest fans he earned with his courage -- kids.

It is poetic justice that his spirit will live on through children.

Pure and simple.

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