04/27/2007 12:00AM

A big story on the small screen


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Go ahead and enjoy Gold Rush Day on Sunday at Hollywood Park, and by all means get revved up for Derby week at Churchill Downs. But whatever you do, save an hour or set the TiVo Sunday afternoon and capture the NBC Sports documentary, "Barbaro: A Nation's Horse."

As anyone might expect, it is a joy to behold and hard to watch, all wrapped up in the same emotionally fraught package. By now, the cast of characters has become familiar: owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, trainer Michael Matz and his assistants, Peter Brette and Grae Kennedy, as well as jockey Edgar Prado and Dr. Dean Richardson, the veterinary surgeon who fought and won a series of difficult battles, but ultimately lost the war.

Bob Costas is the voice narrating the tale, and as always he imbues his work with messages for both the head and the heart. At the same time, the tone is passionately nonjudgmental. No real attempt is made to understand why Barbaro might have broken his leg, nor is there speculation as to the innate weakness of the breed, condition of the track, or observations regarding the physical pressures applied by the Triple Crown itself.

As a result, the viewer is left with the somewhat fatalistic conclusion that these things just happen. The fact that horses break down - even a horse as special as Barbaro - appears to be an inevitable by-product of horse racing. This is true enough, and certainly borne out by history (a Ruffian movie is coming up on ABC, as well HBO's version of the Barbaro story). Still, there there is a groundswell movement on the march to marginalize that inevitability through the greater use of diagnostic radiography and synthetic racing surfaces.

For the purposes of "Barbaro: A Nation's Horse," all that is for another day. This is high drama, played for tears and regret, with the only real consolation manifested in a recurring chorus of gratitude from the people who were closest to him in life. To the man and woman, they seemed to recognize that Barbaro was a horse of a lifetime, with Matz evoking their healing mantra, "At least I had him once."

"I thought it was well done," Matz said Friday afternoon, when asked if he had previewed the documentary. "I thought it showed the good parts and left out the bad."

This is a revealing and slightly sickening notion, that there were worse moments for Barbaro than those portrayed on film. But of course there were, deep behind the scenes, between deliveries of flower arrangements, baskets of apples and crayon-scrawled poems from little kids. Traumatic injuries sustained at high speed are messy affairs. The violence done to bone and tissue leaves consequences long after the wounds are closed.

Imagine how the injury and subsequent medical marathon could have been presented, CSI-style, from computer-enhanced images of the initial fractures sustained in the Preakness, to the slow, putrefying onset of laminitis, the wet leprosy of equine disease. Absolutely, it could have been worse.

Instead, the audience is allowed the use of its imagination, with ample visual aid from Barbaro during his various periods of recovery. For every visual yin there is a heartbreaking yang. See how bright he looks . . . in that elaborate support sling. See him led into the sunshine for a refreshing graze . . . bravely striding on that misshapen, overreaching right hind leg.

Although the Jacksons are appropriately warm and articulate throughout, the documentary frames Matz as Barbaro's chief representative. Obvious ironies are quietly offered. After all, it was Matz who once walked away from a plane crash, and Matz who experienced the cheers of a Derby-sized Olympic throng. It's a wonder he can bring himself to talk about the horse at all, let alone on camera.

"He did an awful lot for everybody - it was the least we could do for him," Matz said. "It happened, it's over with, and now we keep looking for the next one. I know it sets your standard pretty high. But you always try to do the best you possibly can, and that was a horse who gave us the best he possibly could."

For a while, there was a chance that Matz might have returned to the Derby this year with Chelokee, the improving Cherokee Run colt who finished third in the Florida Derby. But it wasn't meant to be.

"Last year with Barbaro, everything went perfect, and it pretty much has to in order to win the Derby," Matz said. "With this colt, we had an abscess pop out of a heel. A rein broke in a gallop. Then I changed shoes and just now got that right.

"He's a horse who has gotten better each race in a slow, nice way," Matz added. "There's been no single big jump forward then a fall backwards. I still think there's a lot to improve on. It was just a little early for him, so we'll shoot for the Preakness."

In a cosmic sense, maybe Matz is owed one of those. He actually laughed at the thought, and after the melancholy of "Barbaro: A Nation's Horse," it sounded pretty good.

"I hope you're right," Matz said. "I hope you're right."