Honoring Barbaro

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In the winter of 2005-2006 a brilliant bay colt made people sit up and take notice.  His speed and dominance on the track and his brilliant win in the Kentucky Derby brought him world-wide fame. His tragic breakdown in the Preakness and subsequent struggle to survive soon brought him universal attention, not just from racing fans, but from people of all walks of life in every part of the world.

Many thought the cocky bay colt would be the horse to finally capture the elusive Triple Crown. Instead, he became famous for his will to live, for his unfailingly cheerful attitude in the face of tremendous odds.

One of the people caught up in Barbaro’s amazing story was Anne Phinney, a sixth-grade school teacher at the Town of Webb School in Old Forge, New York. Anne had learned that Michael Matz, whom she’d been fortunate enough to work for in the past, was training a colt that had qualified for the Kentucky Derby.

Anne had been following Michael’s career, and her students had learned about Michael’s incredible success in the show jumping world, and his retirement to train Thoroughbred racehorses. They began following Barbaro’s career, and celebrated his win in the Florida Derby. Then the colt became the favorite to win the Derby.

He also became a teacher for the class, as Anne used the “buzz” about Barbaro during the week before the Derby to discuss horse racing with her class and teach them about the laws of probability (built around racing odds).

Barbaro’s decisive win in the Derby (by the largest margin in 60 years) further piqued the students’ interest. The Monday morning after his win the kids could talk of nothing else.  They began keeping tabs on the horse daily. They learned about his life, about the people involved in racing, and the strategies used to keep racehorses both fit and relaxed at the same time. Soon it felt like Barbaro was a member of the class.

But that third Saturday in May put an end to Barbaro dreams. Just after the start, jockey Edgar Prado pulled the colt up. Still struggling to run, Barbaro lurched with a badly broken hind leg.

The Monday morning after the Preakness, the kids once again could talk of nothing but Barbaro. Now the mood had changed from exhilaration to despair.  To the kids in the class, as for everyone watching, the Preakness was heartbreaking. “What went wrong?” they wanted to know. How could this horse, with whom they felt such a connection, have suffered this horrendous injury?

Anne had no answers, other than the medical facts. But as the students discussed their feelings in class an idea began to form. There was something they could do, a way they could use the connection they felt with Barbaro to ease their anguish. In the wake of other tragedies, such as the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th, Anne had had her students draw pictures as a form of therapy.

They would do the same thing now. The class would put together a student- illustrated picture book of Barbaro’s first three years of life. They brainstormed and chose events of the horse’s life leading up to the Kentucky Derby and then on to the Preakness.  Students then picked which event he or she wished to illustrate. By the end of that day, most of the students were deeply engrossed in the project. Everyone’s spirits lifted as Barbaro’s life began to emerge from the pages.

As it took shape, the class decided that they would send the book to Michael Matz along with a get-well card for Barbaro. They knew that Barbaro was receiving thousands of cards, treats, and e-mails from around the world and were not expecting a response. Their goal was to offer comfort to the horse and his family, and to give themselves a sense of contribution, of creating something good out of something so horrifying.

Among the events or scenes the students chose to draw were: the outside front entrance of New Bolton festooned with get-well cards and flowers sent by well-wishers, Barbaro in the raft as he was coming out of surgery, and Barbaro looking over a field of babies—his future babies.

Two weeks later, Anne received a memo in her mailbox. Gretchen Jackson, (Barbaro’s owner, along with her husband Roy) had called. Anne was astonished! She couldn’t believe she had gotten a call from Gretchen.

Returning the call, she learned that Michael had made a copy of the book and given it to the Jacksons. Gretchen was so appreciative. She wanted Anne to assure the children that she and Roy were in it for the long haul, that as long as Barbaro was not in pain, they would do whatever it took to save their horse.

Gretchen told Anne that Barbaro seemed to understand that the humans were trying to help him. He was a perfect patient. Gretchen also said that she and her family were overwhelmed and touched by the outpouring of love and support for Barbaro.

The response from Gretchen thrilled the class. Knowing that they were able to provide her some comfort during this devastating experience both empowered and uplifted them.

During the summer, Anne went to a benefit for the Barbaro Fund in Saratoga. The fund raised money for the New Bolton Center, where Barbaro was being treated. There she was reunited with Michael Matz, a very special occasion for her!  She had worked for him while he was competing the incomparable Jet Run, and it was great to get caught up with Michael.  Not only is he an incredible trainer, but an incredible human being as well.  (Michael is well known for his heroism after the crash of United Flight 232 in 1989, when he rescued four children from the burning wreckage.)

At the benefit Anne met Dean Richardson, Barbaro’s vet.  She was extremely impressed by this “down-to-earth, caring person.”  Richardson told her, “If this horse could be well on well wishes, he would be well now.”  The connection that the class felt with Barbaro was a connection that was echoed around the world.

Anne also met the Jacksons, who thanked her once more for the Barbaro book her class had created.

The book brought the class more attention when they were featured in an HBO special about Barbaro.  The experience, Anne says, was “over the top.” Old Forge, New York, is a small, isolated town. To be included in a television special was a “wonderful experience for these kids as a result of a wonderful horse.”

Anne’s “Barbaro” class is now in high school, and although they were, like all of us, devastated when Barbaro lost his fight for life, they have been kept up-to-date on all the changes he has been responsible for. The legacy the colt has left behind has been termed “The Barbaro Effect.”  Racetrack surfaces are being changed to softer material that is kinder to fragile bones and tendons.  Research into laminitis has been well funded and continues to expand. The Barbaro Fund, started by an anonymous donor, has raised well over $1 million to benefit New Bolton Center. The backstretch workers—the grooms and stall cleaners that work on the track—have also benefited with better living and working conditions.

The FOBs (Fans of Barbaro) have saved more than 2100 horses and raised more than $850,000 in support of a better life for horses.  Founder and exercise rider Alex Brown describes the FOBs as “a community dedicated to honoring his legacy by improving the welfare of horses and the humans involved with them.”  Alex says “Barbaro has really given all of us a good kick in the withers.  Horse racing can’t just do things the same old way.  People care now.  People are looking.”  To learn more, check out the website (www.alexbrownracing.com)

A statue of Barbaro racing now stands at the Kentucky Museum, and Breyer has honored him with a model horse.

Barbaro never got the opportunity to win the Triple Crown.  Instead, he did something greater; he improved the lives of current and future racehorses as well as those who care for them. As student Allie McCumber says, “Barbaro might be gone, but his legend will live forever.”

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