05/22/2006 12:00AM

The same awful feeling as 31 years ago


NEW YORK - It's weird how traumatic events like those involving Barbaro in Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico have a way of instantly and vividly recalling distant memories.

When Barbaro broke through the starting gate, my mind immediately flashed back to Seattle Slew and the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. Horseplayers know full well that horses who break through the gate do not in the vast majority of cases recover to win, even if they hardly run off, as was the case with Barbaro. When this happens, there is an expenditure of energy, adrenalin, and focus that cannot be underestimated. I thought back to Seattle Slew, how he broke through the gate before the start of the '78 Gold Cup, and how he nevertheless ran one of the great races in defeat. I wondered if Barbaro would be as valiant 28 years later, the same number of years since the last sweep of the Triple Crown, a sweep that so many people believed Barbaro was poised to accomplish. I was interested to see if Barbaro could be as valiant, because if he was, he still had the chance to do what Seattle Slew fell just short of. Barbaro could still win.

Of course, we never got the chance to see what might have happened. And when Barbaro sustained his injury, I thought of Go for Wand and her fatal breakdown in the 1990 Breeders' Cup Distaff. But more than anything, I thought of Ruffian, and that is because there are so many similarities at play.

In early July of 1975, Ruffian was the darling of the racing world, just like Barbaro was when he was reloaded into the Preakness starting gate. Ruffian was undefeated like Barbaro. She was already acknowledged as a "super horse," an honor many people were certain Barbaro would claim following next month's Belmont Stakes. Ruffian - as Barbaro did in the Preakness - broke down in the early stages of her ill-fated match race with Foolish Pleasure. Ruffian sustained injuries so severe that an ordinary horse similarly afflicted would have been euthanized immediately. And judging from Dr. Dean Richardson's comments before operating on Barbaro on Sunday, the same is true of the injuries sustained by Barbaro.

As I watched the episode play out late Saturday afternoon on television, I remembered as if it were yesterday standing next to my father on the ground floor of the Rockingham Park clubhouse, under a television monitor, waiting with tremendous anticipation to watch the Ruffian-Foolish Pleasure match race from Belmont Park. I was so excited, because all I had heard from the old fogey contingent was that even a great filly like Ruffian could never beat a very good colt like Foolish Pleasure. I was sure Ruffian was going to stick it to Foolish Pleasure, and by extension, them.

And I remembered the stunned silence in the 50-minute drive back home to Boston. And I remembered a feeling of doom. Up until the news that Ruffian had survived an operation to put her leg back together - only for her to sustain unsalvageable injuries coming out of anesthesia - I remember a feeling of helplessness at the not knowing. Even now, 31 years later in a time of instant information, I had the same feeling on Sunday.

It is still not known whether Barbaro will survive the injuries he sustained mere yards into the Preakness. It could be days, or weeks, or even months before we know. But as brutal as this event was, Thoroughbred racing and the people who make the sport go have an uncanny talent of bouncing back. As we mourned the loss of Ruffian 31 years ago, Forego helped keep the sport afloat in 1975 and 1976, winning his second and third straight Horse of the Year titles. Two years after the loss of Ruffian, Seattle Slew became the first undefeated horse to sweep the Triple Crown, a feat that Barbaro seemed capable of matching. Three years after Ruffian came the epic battles between Affirmed and Alydar, and four years after Ruffian came the emergence of another truly great horse in Spectacular Bid.

Right now, all we can do is hope for the best for Barbaro and his people, steel ourselves against the worst, and take solace in the fact that there will be better days to come.