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Feb 09, 2007

Through The Binoculars

By: JOHN PIESEN


One of the great joys of the holiday season for my family and me was reading an article -dated Dec. 24, 2006 -- by long-time friend Steve Haskin in Blood-Horse Magazine.

"Barbaro has been receiving a lot of Christmas cards and holidays," Haskin quoted Jennifer Rench, the marketing coordinator at the New Bolton Medical Center.

"Barbaro received a beautiful winter blanket from Churchill Downs with his name and Derby logo embroidered on it," said Ms. Rench. "And his fans sent a Christmas tree for Barbaro with beautiful glass hand-painted ornaments on it. On each one is a fan's name and where he or she is from. The tree is in the lobby of the hospital."

Ms. Rench continued:

"Gift baskets have been coming every day, filled with carrots, apples, peppermints, and horse treats for Barbaro, and for the other patients in the intensive care unit. Barbaro loves peppermints. Last week, he received a gorgeous wreath made out of carrots. Some people have sent gift baskets for the staff, containing items like coffee and chocolate."

Said Dr. Dean Richardson:

 "Barbaro has a stocking hanging on his door, and he has a Santa Claus hat with his name on it. The nurses took a picture of him with the hat on for their Christmas cards."

Remember all the get-well signs that were posted on the hospital fence in the hours
And days following Barbaro's tragic breakdown in the Preakness last May. Well, they're still there. Only more.

Some of the signs read: "Grow hoof grow", Believe in Barbaro," and "Precious Barbaro, you are our hero." Most of the signs are adorned with ribbons, photos of Barbaro - and hearts.

"And now," said Haskin, "there is talk of Barbaro's release from the hospital in the not so distant future."

I know that Steve enjoyed writing that piece...maybe almost as much as I enjoyed reading it.

And then, only a month later came the horrible news release out of New Bolton.

Hard-boiled sportswriters, who have supposedly seen everything in a 40-year journalism career, are not supposed to lose it. But I lost it. I sat in my office at Oaklawn Park, in Hot Springs, Ark., and cried my eyes out.

Lord knows we have all experienced tragedy in our personal lives - and in our professional lives as well.

In my case, as a professional journalist for the New York Post and Daily Racing Form, I was there at Belmont Park in the late '70s when Ron Turcotte went down in a spill at the start of the last race on a Thursday afternoon.

At the time, it looked like just another spill. Nothing worse. And the evening backstretch softball game between the press and the jockeys went on as scheduled. But in the fourth inning, some one ran to the field, and told us Ron Turcotte was paralyzed.

I jumped in the car, and raced to Belleville Hospital, where the news was confirmed.

Five years after Secretariat, just five years...Ron Turcotte would never walk again.

And jockey Jeffrey Fell, who was blamed by some - unjustifiably - for the spill, would never be the same.

In the '80s, I watched Don McBeth, a great rider and a great person; lose his fight to cancer at a hospital 10 minutes from Belmont Park. He was 38. Like Turcotte, McBeth's name lives forever, thanks primarily to the Don McBeth Memorial Fund for disabled jockeys.

And, two years later, I watched from the press box as Mike Venezia, a good friend was trampled to death on the backstretch of a grass race at Belmont Park.

I will never forget walking out of the press elevator into the jocks' room, and seeing grown men cry.

I joined them.

And Robbie Davis, who blamed himself because it was his horse who trampled Mike, would never be the same.

I was not at Belmont for the Ruffian-Foolish Pleasure match race at Belmont Park. I was starting my shift as night sports editor of the New York Post, and watched the race on TV
in the office.

To this day, three decades later, I have no idea how I put out a sports section that night.
When Bill Rudy, our racing guy, and the best in the business, filed his piece, I read it and broke down. To this day, it remains the single best racing article I've ever read.

And then a quote from LeRoy Jolley, the trainer of Foolish Pleasure, came over the wire:

"They don't play this game in short pants."

For a moment, albeit brief, anger overtook grief as my prime emotion.
Of course, as a racing beat guy since 1978, I've watched from the press box as scores of horses tragically broke down, many of them fatally. It really doesn't it matter if it was a Ruffian or Go For Wand, or a $10,000 claimer. My stomach gets tied into knots each times it happens. In fact, just in the last few days, I watched horrified as three horses died in a pair of spills at Aqueduct. And I pray that Jose Santos recovers from career-threatening injuries.

Yet, like most folks, I've never felt as much pain for an equine victim as I have felt for
Barbaro.

As far as I know, there has never been a case - at least a public case - like this in modern horse racing.

Eight months. Eight months spent trying to save a horse's life. I'm not naïve to think that if this were just another horse, he would have been euthanized on the track, most certainly in the awful first 24 hours.

So, as I've said, there's never been a situation like this that dragged on for eight months, defying all emotions, prompting an outpouring of public emotion...and those passionate and heart-felt signs posted on the fence at New Bolton Center.

And, just when we all were expecting a happy ending, the bad news came.

When I think of Barbaro, and get beyond the sadness, I think about one of the exceptional horses of my lifetime. Of course, we will never know how great he would have been, but from what he displayed on the racetrack, you have to put Barbaro right up there with
the great young horses of the decade - Point Given, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex.

My last personal sighting of Barbaro came on the day before the Preakness.

Friday.

As Barbaro was being vanned from the farm to Pimlico, there would be frequent updates on the press box intercom.

"Barbaro is 30 minutes away!"

"Barbaro is 15 minutes away!"

'Barbaro has ARRIVED."

Barbaro is in the building.

Remind you of anyone?

At the announcement of Barbaro's arrival at the stakes barn, at least 50 members of the press corps jumped to their feet, scooped up their notebooks and tape recorders, and rushed to the press elevator. Reporters don't walk when they can ride.

Later in the day, about 100 yards from Barbaro's barn, a horse named Invasor was winning the Pimlico Special - and not one member of the press was paying any attention.

That's why I found it somewhat ironic that eight months later, these same press people
elected Invasor - and not Barbaro -- the Horse of the Year.

I also found it ironic and sad that, at the Eclipse Awards dinner in January, Barbaro did not receive a single honor. Oh, yes. His owners, his trainer, his rider, and his vets were all honored, and rightly so, but Barbaro didn't get a sniff.

"Barbaro is bright, happy, eating," Dr. Richardson said to a roomful of applause.

And one week later, Barbaro was gone.

Incredible...

But back to the Preakness.

On my way out of Pimlico that Friday, I stopped by the barn to visit Barbaro, and trainer Michael Matz.

Back in the late '90s, as a Daily Racing Form correspondent, I became the first turfwriter to interview Michael Matz, and we soon became good friends.

I pegged that Matz article on the fact that he had been a champion equestrian, in fact an Olympic silver medalist, and the United States flag-bearer at the '96 Olympics in Atlanta, and gave that all up to train thoroughbreds from the ground up.

At no point in the interview did Michael Matz mention that, years before, he rescued three children from a burning airplane, and then returned to the carnage save a year-old baby. That little tidbit did not become public knowledge until last April.

In early 2006, a Monday morning phone call to Matz's barn in south Florida was a must. Michael and I would mainly talk about Barbaro's progress, and I would make it a must to ask Mike to bring him to the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, for whom I have written the press notes the last five years.

 Mike, being Mike, would never give me an absolute "no". He always left the door open a crack. But I knew and he knew he that Barbaro was going the Florida Derby route to the Kentucky Derby, a race he would win by 6 ½ lengths, the largest winning margin in 60 years.

(Now, a year later, No Biz Like Showbiz, the current favorite for the '07 Kentucky Derby, won the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park, the same stake that Barbaro won last year leading up to the Florida Derby).

Back to the Preakness.

I left Baltimore on Friday evening for central Pennsylvania. My son Michael was graduating from Bucknell the same day as the Preakness. I watched the race with my family from a hotel room in Lewisburg, Pa.

In the flash of an eye, Barbaro went from what everyone believed to be a certain Triple Crown winner to a helpless animal struggling to survive.

Whoever dreamed at the time, while, like millions, watching those horrible television images, that Barbaro's struggle for survival would last eight months.

And, in the blink of an eye, end so tragically.



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