Sunday, May 21, 2006

Tragedy at the Track

During the 131st running of the Preakness Stakes yesterday, the unthinkable happened: Barbaro, the 2006 contender for the Triple Crown, pulled up lame in the first furlong of the race. After bursting through the starting gate prior to the bell, Barbaro calmly went back to his gate, reloading without any apparent injury. All the horses sprung out of the gate, and within 15 seconds, it was obvious that something had gone sickeningly wrong. Barbaro's right hind leg jutted out grotesquely as his jockey, Edgar Prado, struggled to pull him out of the race before any more damage occurred to the leg.

Caused simply by a taking a bad step, Barbaro broke his right hind ankle in two places, and it looks bad for racing's next great hope. It's nearly impossible to put a horse in cast so the leg can heal, and it's even harder when it involves a spirited young horse who only wants to run. Horses with the kind of break he received are normally immediately put down at the track, but because of his breeding value and stature, surgery is being performed today on his life-threatening injuries. His racing career is thuddingly over, his immortality limited to being the 2006 winner of the Kentucky Derby. I had my head in my hands and tears in my eyes, devasted and horrified, as I watched Barbaro hobble around on the track yesterday, not wanting to believe that this amazing creature in his prime was so gravely injured. A shaky, hushed phone call from a friend watching the race elsewhere left me feeling like we had witnessed a death in the family.

Watching a horse in prime condition break down in the biggest race of his career, I was reminded of Ruffian, the championship filly of 1975. Considered by many to be the top female horse of all time, she was nicknamed the "Queen of the Fillies" after being named 2 year-old Filly of the Year in 1974, and winning the Filly Triple Crown in 1975. I was horse-crazy 6 year-old girl at the time, aware enough of Ruffian to name every female toy horse I had after her. (Yeah, my Barbies rode horses, instead of going shopping).

Remaining undefeated in her first ten races, a match race was proposed between her and Foolish Pleasure, the 1975 winner of the Kentucky Derby. Ruffian was in front by a half-length when in the third furlong, the sesmoid bones in her right front ankle snapped. Twelve-hour surgery was performed, but when she woke up from the anesthsia, she wildly thrashed around, causing more damage to her ankle. She was euthanized a day after the race, and buried near the finish line in Belmont Park.

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