HBO Produces a Winner With Barbaro Documentary

HBO Produces a Winner With Barbaro Documentary
Photo: Barbara D. Livingston

By Terry Conway                                                                                                                                             

In the battle of the Barbaro documentaries, HBO Sports pulls away in the stretch.

Long celebrated for Emmy Award-winning sports documentaries, HBO scores another winner with “Barbaro” that debuts Wednesday at 10 p.m (ET).  The presentation delivers a compelling script, revealing interviews and splendid archival footage. 

Compared to NBC’s documentary in early May, HBO Sports serves up a more straightforward narrative and doesn’t shy away from the anguish and tear-filled scenes that surrounded Barbaro’s catastrophic leg injury in last year’s Preakness.

HBO and the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine held a world premiere screening Monday evening at Unionville High School in the heart of Chester County, Pa.’s horse country.  Special guests included Frank DeFord, renowned journalist and writer of the documentary; Margaret Grossi, HBO producer of documentary; Gretchen and Roy Jackson, who raced Barbaro; and Dr. Dean Richardson, Chief of Surgery at Penn’s New Bolton Center who treated Barbaro.

“Barbaro” captures the handsome colt’s spectacular victories and promising future.  It tells Barbaro’s story from his earliest days as a spirited foal in Kentucky to his initial grass races (where track announcers call him “bar-Bare-oh”), to his stunning runaway victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Bramnds (gr. I), to busting through the starting gate and his grisly breakdown at Pimlico Racecourse, and finally to his valiant struggle to survive at New Bolton.

Among those chronicling Barbaro’s story are the Jacksons, trainer Michael Matz and assistant trainer Peter Brette, jockey Edgar Prado, Richardson and turf writer Bill Nack.  In one interview, Pimlico’s track emergency medical team relates their behind-the-scenes experiences that lend vivid insights to the story.

The final segment explores Barbaro’s engaging personality, the animal’s will to survive and the deep love affair that evolved into a national obsession.

“Barbaro had good people all around him from the time he was born, and being brought up in that nurturing and trusting way, he responded to that,” said producer Grossi. “The public invested in the horse because when the horse trusted, it was because people around him trusted.  When the horse fought hard it was because the people around him fought hard.  It’s at the center of the story and why people will continue to remember the good feeling around Barbaro.”

Nack says the colt was knocking on the door of greatness. 

“But all we can do is speculate and be left with the haunting of his memory,” he said. “He's one of those kind of horses who will be in history an eternal mystery."

On Monday the same production team received a prestigious Peabody Award for their work on HBO’s Billie Jean King documentary.  Brain Keane, the foremost composer in the world of documentaries, scored the superb soundtrack.

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