05/20/2006 12:00AM

A dark day for racing

Jockey Edgar Prado and an unidentified member of the Pimlico track crew attempt to calm Barbaro after the Kentucky Derby winner suffered an injury to his right hind ankle in the run to the first turn in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on Saturday.

BALTIMORE - A day that began full of optimism and excitement turned into Thoroughbred racing's darkest moment since July 6, 1975.

People who were at Belmont Park that day to watch the legendary filly Ruffian break her leg in a celebrated match race might have thought they would never again see anything so awful on a racetrack. And they wouldn't have unless they were at the Preakness yesterday to see the colt Barbaro staggering on three legs, unable to bear weight on his shattered right hind leg.

Every owner and trainer lives with the knowledge that traumatic injuries are an inescapable part of the game; they are the result of a half-ton animal hitting the ground at high speed and depending on four spindly legs for support. If a horse's shock-absorption mechanism fails for an instant, the results can be devastating.

Breakdowns can bring tears to the eyes of the most jaded bettors when they occur in the cheapest race at the cheapest tracks. But Barbaro was a special case. Like Ruffian, he was not only undefeated, but he conveyed the impression that he was an animal with limitless potential. He had won the Kentucky Derby by 6 1/2 lengths, the largest winning margin in more than half a century. Even habitual skeptics were predicting that he would become the sport's first Triple Crown winner since 1978. A record crowd of 118,402 came to Pimlico with the expectation that they were going to witness something special, perhaps something historic.

Barbaro broke through the gate shortly before the scheduled start of the Preakness and ran off for a few strides. That is usually a bad omen - NBC's cameras showed trainer Michael Matz clenching his jaw as he watched - but there is no indication that the misadventure hurt Barbaro physically. He had looked good in the post parade before that incident, and when he returned to the gate he stood calmly and broke alertly. He set off to chase the pacesetter, Like Now, and had traveled about 30 strides when jockey Edgar Prado sensed that something was wrong and tried to pull him up. It wasn't easy.

"They have so much adrenaline that they try to keep running," veterinarian Larry Bramlage said later.

Suddenly, spectators were transfixed by the sight of the animal trying to hold his right leg in the air, and then by the dreaded arrival of the horse ambulance - the "meat wagon" - to transport him off the track. His fate is uncertain, but his career is unequivocally finished.

Rarely has the running or the outcome of a classic race seemed so anticlimactic.

The colts who had been considered Barbaro's main rivals, Sweetnorthernsaint and Brother Derek, pressed the front-running Like Now and forced him to set a fast pace that took a toll on all of them. The 12-1 shot Bernardini sat on the rail, stalking the leaders under jockey Javier Castellano, then blew past them on the turn and drew away to win by 5 1/4 lengths.

His victory might be dismissed as a fluke in view of Barbaro's misfortune, but Bernardini in fact ran a phenomenal race. This was only the fourth start in the colt's career, and rarely has a colt with so little seasoning been able to win a classic race. Speed handicappers are apt to rate Bernardini's winning time in the Preakness as superior to Barbaro's time at Churchill Downs.

His unexpected and exceptional performance could have made the 131st Preakness an epic confrontation, a definitive test for Barbaro. But few people left Pimlico last night talking about the brilliance of Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum's colt.

For a sport that struggles to attract new fans and retain its old ones, the events at Pimlico could not have been more devastating. Those of us who remember Ruffian know how such a calamity can affect the national psyche. Racing was riding high in the mid-1970's after Secretariat swept the Triple Crown. And in the wake of Secretariat appeared a charismatic and electrifying fast filly. Ruffian dominated members of her own gender before her match race against Foolish Pleasure, the colt who had won the Kentucky Derby. It was a battle of the sexes that galvanized the nation, and when Ruffian snapped her leg after running an eighth of a mile, the nation recoiled in horror. After the filly was euthanized, countless would-be fans turned away from the sport.

Regardless of Barbaro's ultimate fate, many fans in 2006 will have the same reaction as their counterparts in 1975. They will find it difficult to watch a Thoroughbred race or muster enthusiasm for the sport for a long, long time.