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New Barbaro book details the colt's legacy
Alex Brown found himself in the middle of the maelstrom between Barbaro’s 2006 Kentucky Derby win and the colt’s much-publicized 2007 death. As an exercise rider at Fair Hill, Md., where Barbaro was based with trainer Michael Matz, Brown got to know Barbaro and his connections personally. And as the keeper of a local website, he quickly became a central source of information about Barbaro after the colt’s Preakness day breakdown and long subsequent battle to survive.
In a book available this month, Brown provides more behind-the-scenes details about Barbaro’s life, career, and death. Among the interesting revelations in “Greatness and Goodness: Barbaro and His Legacy” is the fact that just weeks before Barbaro died, owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson were making arrangements to ship Barbaro from the New Bolton equine hospital to Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky. The move never happened. Barbaro seemed to be on the road to recovery but developed a final case of laminitis in both front feet and was euthanized at New Bolton on Jan. 29.
Brown’s time following Barbaro, first as an exercise rider working near Matz’s barn and later as a participant hand-grazing Barbaro at the clinic, inspired Brown to embark on a two-year journey around North America’s racetracks, horse rescues, and slaughterhouses. Along the way, he worked for seven trainers at seven racetracks from Texas to Canada and interviewed dozens of people who participated in or reported on Barbaro’s career. The result is a comprehensive look not only at Barbaro’s life but also about two subjects his fans consider to be the colt’s legacy: ending laminitis and horse slaughter.
“I quit Fair Hill and hit the road to learn much more about the issues of horse slaughter, Thoroughbred retirement, and I’ve learned way more than I ever thought I would know about laminitis,” said Brown, who wrote the book with the Jacksons’ cooperation. “One of the major lessons I learned is that the majority of horsemen really do care. There is an antagonistic relationship between animal-welfare people and people who work directly with animals or make money from animals, including horsemen. But I’ve come to understand more clearly that, one, horsemen do care, and, secondly, we better want these horse industries.
Otherwise, there’s no purpose for the horse.
“As someone that truly believes in the horse, you have to support not only ending horrific things like horse slaughter and working on better retirement, but we better want to support the sports that horses are involved in, whether it’s horse racing, hunting, showing, eventing, whatever,” he said. “If we don’t, the horse’s role in our society gets further marginalized.”
Barbaro fans and breeding buffs will be particularly interested in the fact that Barbaro’s post-racetrack home was decided while the colt was still undergoing treatment at New Bolton. Three Chimneys owner Robert Clay had approached the Jacksons before Barbaro won the 2006 Florida Derby, expressing interest in standing him at stud alongside his sire, Dynaformer.
“Several months into his recovery, we went to New Bolton to visit Barbaro, and it appeared that he was going to possibly make a full recovery,” Clay told Brown. “We met with Roy and Gretchen and offered to build a special round pen for Barbaro for further recuperation, in hopes that he could stand at stud the next year.”
By December 2006, Barbaro’s progress raised optimism and speculation that he could leave New Bolton for Kentucky. Brown writes that the Jacksons and Barbaro's surgeon Dr. Dean Richardson were considering the move partly to get the colt into a somewhat warmer climate, and arrangements with Three Chimneys were already pretty far along. The farm had built the round pen, stallion manager Sandy Hatfield had met with the Jacksons at New Bolton, and at one point in late December Richardson told Clay that Barbaro would be ready to ship within a week.
“We have worked with stallions that had physical limitations in the past, Seattle Slew being the most high-profile one,” Hatfield told Brown. “I think the most important thing that we found is that we had to be prepared for any scenario, and we worked toward that.
“I traveled to New Bolton Center and met Barbaro and the Jacksons; it seemed like the perfect fit,” Hatfield said. “We all had the horse’s well-being at the forefront of all we were doing. The Jacksons visited the farm and saw where Barbaro would live and the way we cared for our horses, especially the older ones that needed that extra special touch. The more we talked, the more at ease we all became, and it seemed like it was going to happen. They knew whether he became a breeding stallion or not, he would always have a great home with us.”
Two days after Richardson had alerted Clay to be ready for Barbaro’s arrival, Barbaro suffered a setback that led to his fatal case of laminitis.
Barbaro has been at least as influential in death as in life, Brown said. His battles with the painful hoof disease contributed to the development of at least three funds to study laminitis, including the Barbaro Fund, launched by an anonymous $500,000 donation; Brown identifies the donor as Pennsylvania breeder Betty Moran of Brushwood Stables. And many of the so-called “Fans of Barbaro” have become galvanized to end horse slaughter, raising money and lobbying state and federal legislators to end the practice. Through July 2010, Brown said, they had raised more than $1.4 million for horse rescue and retirement efforts.
Brown said his examination of laminitis studies makes him optimistic the disease will be cured.
“The research techniques available now weren’t available 20 years ago,” he said, adding that some cancer research techniques, such as work with genes, is now being applied to laminitis. “That gives me encouragement that with enough money, effort, and energy, this does become a solvable puzzle.”
That, Brown said, is a change of mind for him. “I used to feel that − we haven’t cured this 2,000-year-old disease that Aristotle described, so why would we be able to now?”
It’s not the only change he has undergone.
“If you’d asked me three years ago if I’d write a book, I’d have said, ‘Are you kidding? I can’t write a book,’ ” Brown said. “Not just because I’m not, I think, a very good writer, but because I’d have never have had the belief I could write a book. Barbaro’s story made me realize I could.”
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