05/21/2006 11:00PM

From injury to exit, the longest hour

Track workers gather to assess the injured Barbaro.

It was only 63 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity.

Time seemed to stand still from the moment the starting gates opened at 6:19 p.m. Saturday in the 131st Preakness until Barbaro left Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore via a horse ambulance with a police escort bound for the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals at New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa.

From a wave of excitement at the start to a funereal feeling as Barbaro, a splint on his right hind leg, was pushed into a horse ambulance, it was unquestionably a day of emotions.

Barbaro, the 1-2 favorite coming off his dominant 6 1/2-length victory in the Kentucky Derby, broke through the gate before the official start of the Preakness. Jockey Edger Prado said Barbaro put his nose on the gate, and it opened. He jogged about 60 yards before being corralled by an outrider and brought back to the gate. It has been suggested that Prado looked at Barbaro's right leg, sensing a potential problem. Prado said Monday that he looked down at Barbaro's feet to make sure he hadn't twisted or lost a shoe.

When the gates opened for real, Barbaro broke well and raced about an eighth of a mile before Prado felt something amiss and began the process of pulling the horse up. Because Barbaro was going at about 40 miles per hour, it took Prado until just past the finish line to get him pulled up. Prado hopped off and held the horse until veterinarians could attend to him. A distraught Prado waved off reporters as he left the track.

In an effort to stabilize the right hind leg, Dr. Dennis Dreyfuss put on a Kimzey splint, which is an aluminum brace. The horse ambulance was brought onto the track, and after some prodding Barbaro was put in.

Curtains were brought out, and many people in the crowd feared that Barbaro was going to be euthanized.

The van took Barbaro to the stakes barn where he had been stabled since Friday afternoon. Michael Matz, Barbaro's trainer, Peter Brette, Matz's assistant, and owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson walked briskly to get back to the barn.

"Prado said he heard a pop and pulled him up,'' Gretchen Jackson said as she walked.

At the barn, Barbaro was backed out of the ambulance and sedated as a team of veterinarians, led by Nicholas Meittinis, assessed the injuries.

X-rays revealed fractures to the cannon bone and the long pastern bone. It was decided that Barbaro would require surgery, but with more than 118,000 people leaving Pimlico, getting him to the hospital was not going to be easy.

As veterinarians put a four-layered pressure bandage on the horse, the state police were trying to clear the roads to get the ambulance out. Meanwhile, horsemen were returning to the stakes barn with heavy hearts. Nick Zito, who trains Hemingway's Key, the colt who finished third, said, "If you have any kind of passion for this business, how could you be happy?"

According to Meittinis, Barbaro was in a very narrow stall during the van ride so that he wouldn't have to bear full weight on the injured leg.

"He was a champ,'' Meittinis said. "The horse never tried to put weight on the limb, he never tried to kick out at anybody. He was a true champion and just an intelligent, athletic horse with exemplary temperament."

At 7:22 p.m., the ambulance was able to leave with several members of the Maryland State Police on motorcycles leading the way. Barbaro arrived at the hospital shortly after 9 p.m.

Sixteen hours later, he would undergo extensive surgery that, for the time being, saved his life.