02/16/2007 1:00AM

Chalk one up for online mission of mercy


ARCADIA, Calif. - It was pretty hard to hear above all the chatter last week, what with Anna Nicole going to her reward and that crazy astronaut chick on the prowl. But for those who dig deep into the Internet - or know someone who does - it was amazing to discover that Barbaro reached back from the dead to save seven horses.

He did it through the efforts of the loosely organized, emotionally committed collection of sympathetic horse lovers known variously as Barbaro Maniacs, or Fans of Barbaro. The FOB's began gathering in the wake of Barbaro's breakdown in the Preakness, gathered steam through the ups and downs of his post-surgical ordeals, then exploded with an outpouring of heartfelt grief at the news of his death on Jan. 29.

Practicing cynics scoff at the idea of such online villages. Cyberspace, they contend, is no place to form and nurture relationships, especially when there are perfectly good neighborhood bars still in business. But if a group of semi-anonymous e-friends can pull off what they did last week for seven horses in a western Nevada feedlot, bound for certain slaughter, they can decorate their chat rooms with Scooter Libby beefcake photos for all I care.

The rescue effort began with a posting on the Tim Woolley Racing website at around 8:30 p.m. Eastern time on the evening of Feb. 6. Woolley trains a small stable at the Fair Hill Training Center, which Barbaro put forever on the map, and the site has become a welcome harbor for all manner of equine welfare conversations. Barbaro, however, tends to dominate the discussion.

On that Tuesday evening, any Fan of Barbaro (or otherwise) tuning into the Woolley site would have been alerted to the news that the Grace Foundation of Folsom, Calif., had received word of seven horses who needed safe passage to escape an inevitable fate. It would cost $3,132 to purchase all seven and transport them from feedlot holding pens in Fallon, Nev., back to the Grace Foundation facility near Folsom, and the clock was ticking. In 48 hours, the horses would be loaded and off to slaughter.

Barely 10 minutes later, the first donation of $100 was confirmed, followed in short order by steady bumps of $50, $100, $150, late into the night, and then beginning again the following morning, accompanied by personal comments:

"Does anyone know how much is needed now? I will donate some tonight. I wish it could be more, but my husband is in jeopardy of lay-off! I'll do what I can though."

"I just sent a small donation - I am tapped out, but every little bit helps, and as you say every little bit adds up."

"I'm going to try and do a little fund-raising among friends and relatives today. I'll see what I can come up with."

"I just sent 20$ via Paypal. Sorry I can't send more. Come on FOB's lets save these horses."

By 4 p.m. on Feb. 7, more than $1,200 had been raised. By 10:30 that night, the total hit $2,400. The next morning, an FOB posted the following message:

"Please tell me what remainder is needed to save these horses . . . I will overnight a check for the remainder . . . please consider this my donation in memory of Barbaro."

By the afternoon of Feb. 8, it was done.

"Because of the incredible efforts of the Fans of Barbaro, we were able to pull out all of the horses," said Beth DeCaprio, executive director of the Grace Foundation. "They are here now with us, going through our intake regimen of examinations and vaccinations. After that they will be temperament-tested, to see where they might best fit in our program."

The Grace Foundation is one of literally scores of organizations nationwide that try to provide alternative endings for horses of all breeds, whose commercial use has been exhausted. Except for the occasional token donation, they do it without substantive support from the organizations who breed, employ and compete with the horses in the first place. In the case of Grace, their property was donated by a local land developer, sympathetic with their cause.

Among those rescued last week by Grace and the FOB's were a gray gymkhana mare (possibly pregnant), a gray Arab gelding, a palomino filly, and a Thoroughbred mare, badly underweight, whose identity was still being researched by the Grace Foundation staff.

They will join the Grace Foundation herd that is used in therapeutic classes for children with such developmental disabilities as Down's syndrome and autism, as well as abused children described as "at risk" by the local shelters that have taken them in. DeCaprio, a wife and mother of two who owned a publishing business, has gathered together a staff of counselors and educators to supervise the hands-on experience with horses.

"Many of these kids have been victims their whole lives," DeCaprio said. "Here they are empowered to really make a difference, whether it is caring for the horses, or raising money to rescue slaughter horses, through a club they call 'Saving Grace.' "

And sometime soon, as the Grace Foundation continues to develop its facility, DeCaprio promised that there would be a field full of rescued horses with a plaque on the fence that reads, "Fans of Barbaro." As legacies go, that's pretty tough to beat.