The mood could not have been darker when the horse ambulance left the Pimlico backstretch on the evening of May 20, its precious cargo the shattered dreams of racing fans and horse lovers everywhere.
The devastating injury to Barbaro, suffered right in front of the packed Pimlico grandstand and in full view of a national television audience, left us shocked, sickened, and dismayed. The fact there would be no 2006 Triple Crown winner, extending the streak yet another year since Affirmed in 1978, really didn't matter.
It wasn't about the race or the Triple Crown drought. It was about the horse, and Barbaro was a horse who seemed invincible following his victory in the Run for the Roses two weeks earlier. The son of Dynaformer
was battle-tested. He had speed, a sense of verve, and was in the best of hands with trainer Michael Matz. His future seemed limitless.
Then, in the blink of an eye, a bone snapped, and all was gone. Barbaro was pulled up, an ambulance arrived, and the all-too-familiar blue screen came out to shield fans from the gruesome sight. Tears flowed, from soft hearts and hardboots.
Only a few years ago, the blue screen symbolized the almost certain death of a racehorse severely injured in battle. Not so today, thanks to the miracles of modern science.
And what occurred in the hours and days after Barbaro left Pimlico on a horse van truly was a miracle.
The University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa., epitomizes the spirit of modern veterinary medicine. Its directors and staff are innovative professionals whose cutting-edge research has led to significant breakthroughs in the care and well-being of horses. That clearly was evidenced by the surgical procedures Barbaro underwent, along with the revolutionary post-op recovery water pool in which he was placed. Barbaro was fortunate to have such a facility nearby. Weren't we all.
Dean Richardson, the chief of surgery at the New Bolton Center who led the team that worked on Barbaro, provided a media briefing, both before and after the May 21 operation, answering questions honestly and directly. He laid out the pitfalls going in, detailed the surgical procedures, celebrated the success coming out, and cautioned that Barbaro still has a long, long way to go before he is out of danger.
The decision to welcome the press to the New Bolton Center and allow the sun to shine in on these delicate proceedings was a significant turning point in a story that had grown well beyond the perimeter of our sport. It wasn't just the racing world that wanted to know how Barbaro was doing, and post-surgical photos of the horse in a recovery pool and then in his stall, munching on hay, were a reassuring sight for those of us within the industry and to those outsiders caught up in the story.
By May 22, when the network morning shows reviewed the major news of the weekend, the focus had shifted from the tragedy of Pimlico to the miracle of the New Bolton Center. Richardson, who after seven hours of surgery was articulate, patient, and a quick wit during the May 21 press conference, talked about Barbaro's ordeal on both the "Today" show on NBC and "The Morning Show" on CBS. The front page of USA Today's sports section focused on the surgery, complete with a large photo of Barbaro in his recovery stall, and not on the breakdown in the Preakness. Network newscasts and radio shows marveled at the efforts to save the horse.
Racing, at one moment near its darkest hour, was born again as a sport that cares, one blessed with compassionate professionals whose lives are dedicated to the health and well being of the horse. That, in itself, was a miraculous recovery.