The Death of Barbaro

At Churchill Downs they post the name of every Kentucky Derby winner on the white walls of the place, literally encircling the paddock area in 132 years of rich racing history.

From Aristides in 1875 to Citation in 1948 to Secretariat in 1973, you read the names and channel the majesty.

But for as long as the place stands, everyone who experienced the bittersweet racing summer of 2006 will look at the sign saying "Barbaro" and feel a spasm of sadness. No Derby story ever took such a sharp turn toward tragedy.

Two minutes of glory, followed by two weeks of adulation.

An instant of horror, followed by weeks of worry.

Then weeks of cautious, growing optimism.

Then sudden, dire concern.

Now a final moment of sorrow.

That was Barbaro's vivid streak across our consciousness. From a stirring sprint down the stretch in Louisville on the first Saturday in May to a horrible afternoon two weeks later in Baltimore to a somber announcement from a Pennsylvania animal hospital in January, he left his mark on us.

It is a testament to his athletic prowess and equine beauty that we cared this much. It is a testament to the will and skill of many humans that he lived this long. Yet ultimately it is a testament to the brutal realities of thoroughbred racing as it exists today: Despite every effort of man and medicine, this magnificent colt could not be saved from injuries that are far too common in the sport of kings.

"I won't say it was a surprise, but I will say that my heart broke and 100 million hearts broke with mine because we had all gotten so connected with this horse," Laura Hillenbrand, author of "Seabiscuit," said in an exclusive interview with ABC News. "Some of it has to do with the time we're living in. We wanted to find a story that had a happy ending and for so long it seemed like this story was going to have a happy ending."

Given the fragility of the breed and the amount of stress inflicted upon these animals at the young age of 3, we're probably lucky these catastrophic breakdowns don't happen more often. And in the case of Barbaro, we're absolutely lucky there was ever any hope of survival at all.

From the moment the colt's shattered right hind leg torqued out at a gruesome angle just 200 yards into the Preakness last May 20, it took a heroic effort from everyone involved to give Barbaro a chance to live as long as he did.

Jockey Edgar Prado brought the surging and scared colt to a rapid halt, giving the track vets a chance to treat him on the Pimlico front stretch. Emergency personnel quickly vanned Barbaro from Baltimore to the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa. Once there, Dr. Dean Richardson performed a surgery described as both intricate and exquisite to stabilize the colt's fractured leg.

Richardson warned everyone it would take months to heal the horse, with many pitfalls along the way. Despite the efforts of the doctor and his staff, and the unwavering dedication of owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, Richardson's prediction proved depressingly accurate.

Laminitis, a debilitating and often fatal hoof disease, set in on Barbaro's left hind leg during early July. But even after surgery to remove most of the hoof, the colt showed remarkable progress -- to the point that in December, Barbaro's release to the rolling bluegrass hills of a Kentucky horse farm seemed imminent.

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