I had to ask. Four days after winning the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), as Michael Matz talked about his horse and his life, he paused and I pounced.
What about a book? Matz laughed and then thought about it, briefly entertaining the prospects of a book—plumber’s son, Olympics, plane crash, and now Derby winner. Too reserved to get swept away in nepotistic chatter about a book, Matz diverted the conversation to a memory about a writer who had compiled a book on his life. It ended with Matz carrying the flag at the closing ceremonies at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
Matz said to the guy, "How do you know that’s the end? Maybe there’s a lot more to the story than just carrying the flag in the Olympics."
He never heard from the guy again.
In early January, eight months after that conversation, I found myself at my kitchen table, trying to figure out an end to the book I was writing on Barbaro and Matz. I couldn’t shake Matz’ voice from my head,
"How do you know that’s the end? Maybe there’s a lot more to the story…"
This time, it was more about a horse than a man, but finishing a book without knowing the ending had me flummoxed—like taking the winner’s circle photo as the field hits the quarter pole. Writing about a horse who still hovered between life and death was unsettling. I waffled back and forth from May to December, struggling with the context of the story. I typed an e-mail to my editor, saying I couldn’t do it.
Never hit send. I started and restarted the book, snapping my laptop shut more times than a screen door on a summer day. I started running miles and miles, trying to make sense of the process of writing a book without knowing the end. At some point, I decided to write it like I knew Barbaro was going to make it. Really, it was the only way to be able to type out a word—believe in a miracle. Actually, in this case, a miracle upon a miracle upon a miracle. I’ve never tried fiction, but this time, I contrived the end I wanted—needed—stuck by it, and started writing.
Once I started, it got progressively easier, especially as Barbaro’s prospects started looking up. Talking to all the people who touched Barbaro’s life helped, too. Bill Sanborn, John Stephens, Edgar Prado,
Michael Matz, Scott Palmer, Dan Dreyfuss, Dean Richardson…they each knew his character, felt his charisma.
As I tried to finish the book, Barbaro was still in the intensive care unit at New Bolton but seemingly rolling along, defying veterinary science, talk swirling about him moving to a breeding farm in Lexington.
In January, I shared a bottle of red wine with Dr. Dean Richardson, talking about the fracture, the surgery, the laminitis, the stress, the precariousness of the situation. Richardson still couldn’t fathom writing a book about a horse who was far from cured.
Cautious as ever, Richardson did say how it would be good for the horse to smell some mares, get in a farm routine where he could be a horse again. To get out of an intensive care unit and to a farm. The miracle seemed palpable.
I finally typed out an ending to the book. It went like this—People love a hero, and what’s more heroic than to die trying? Beating death? That sounds better.
In January, I traveled to Lexington to interview Matz one last time before sending the book to the printer.
Matz was optimistic about Barbaro, I was relatively content with the book, kept the ending, and made the deadline that would have it out in April.
Once finished, everyone asked me about the book. "How’s your book?" became as steady as "How are you doing?"
My answer became matter-of-fact, almost flippant. "It’ll be good as long as he doesn’t die between now and when the book comes out."
The day after I finished the book, the laminitis in his left hind foot threatened again. We postponed sending the book to the printer, watched and waited to see which way the story went. When things looked up, we sent the book, then in a few short weeks, everything came crashing down. The house of cards finally folded. Barbaro was put down Jan. 29.
I went back and edited the last few pages. We finally knew the ending. The one none of us wanted.
- Sean Clancy is the author of the upcoming Eclipse Press title: Barbaro: The Horse Who Captured America’s Heart.