STANTON, Del. - There are some stories that come and go like a comet. And then there are those that continue to glow like the brightest star.
Barbaro was a star on the track when he won the 2006 Kentucky Derby. He was a bigger star after he was injured in the early stages of the Preakness. Now, 3 months after he was put down, his star somehow glows as bright as it ever did.
Yesterday afternoon, on the occasion of what would have been Barbaro's fourth birthday, hundreds of his fans gathered in a tent in the Grove at Delaware Park to celebrate the colt's life and his legacy. It was equal parts emotion, passion, nostalgia and hope.
And when Barbaro's owners, Gretchen and Roy Jackson, arrived at 2:30, they were greeted like the heroes they became to so many. Gretchen knelt for a second in front of the hundreds of FOB (Fans of Barbaro), just to show the same affection for them they were showing for her.
"Never in my wildest dreams would I have anticipated anything like this at this time last year, let alone 4 years ago when Barbaro was born," she told them.
Roy had tears in his eyes, as did almost everybody in that tent. The crowd was nearly 90 percent women. They had attached themselves to this horse and would not let go.
They came from dozens of states, Canada, Puerto Rico and South Africa. They came wearing Barbaro T-shirts. They came with FOB tags with the words "we get it" on them.
"I hope," Gretchen said, "that you all know it in your hearts that I'm the biggest FOB, but I'm an FOB of the FOBs."
The line to get into the tent was formed before noon. More than an hour later, it dissipated as the last person made it inside. Sharon Crump, who grew up in Atlantic City and now lives in Phillipsburg, N.J., came up with the idea for the event. She thought maybe 100 people would come when she conceived it in February. By yesterday she had 450 who had paid $35, and more were paying cash at the entrance.
"We need a bigger ship," she thought.
The event took off when she posted it on timwoolleyracing.com, the Web site that became a clearinghouse for all things Barbaro after the colt won the Derby. Alex Brown, an exercise rider for trainer Tim Woolley, originally designed the Web site 3 years ago to bring attention to Woolley's stable. It didn't get much attention then. Once he started putting daily Barbaro updates on it, it blew up.
"When the accident happened in the Preakness, I planned to wrap up the project," said Brown, an Englishman who came here 20 years ago. "I realized the next day that there was a massive need for information on Barbaro."
He didn't imagine this, however. With 3,000 visits in an hour, the site crashed the night after the Preakness when the colt came out of surgery at New Bolton Center. The site peaked on Jan. 29, the day Barbaro died, when it had 70,000 visits. Generally, it got around 12,000 visits per day while Barbaro was in the hospital. The site still gets 8,000 daily visits.
Debra Lopez, the president of an advertising/public relations firm in Milwaukee, flew in for the event. She had always been interested in animal safety.
"This," she said, "gave me the will to act." So she formed campaigningforbarbaro.com, an organization that is trying to raise money for laminitis research and retirement homes for thoroughbreds.
Carole and Rick Santillo, from Malvern, are huge Villanova basketball fans. They are also FOB. They just bought a Fred Stone painting of Barbaro they plan to hang in a prominent place before Saturday's Derby. They are donating money to the research efforts.
"Every year on his birthday, there will be two checks, even in the will," Carole said.
Dave Eshleman, a house painter from Downingtown, loves the sport. He really loved Barbaro.
"I thought he was going to be a Triple Crown winner," he said. "[The injury] broke everybody's heart."
Shelley Abrams, a property manager from Yardley, got interested in racing because Smarty Jones captivated her 3 years ago.
"These people that are here want to be Barbaro's voice," she said. "They want to get things done. I want to see horse slaughter end. That's my major goal."
An anti-horse slaughter bill, which would prohibit horse slaughter for human consumption, is making its way through Congress. It has a real chance to pass.
"This story touched people because he was such a symbol of strength," Abrams said. "He became human. You saw this horse that was larger than life 1 minute and then all of a sudden you saw what could happen."
Abrams believes that Barbaro survived for 8 months "to get all these people together to continue to do this work."
Delaware U.S. Rep. Mike Castle spoke as did Barbaro's vet, Dr. Kathy Anderson, who said: "I doubt that 4 years ago anybody could have imagined the wake that Barbaro would leave, neither in the traditional Irish sense of extreme sorrow for loss and the boating term, currents in the water behind the craft. He has done both."
ESPN's Jeanine Edwards read an e-mail she got from Barbaro's rider, Edgar Prado.
"[Barbaro] began the flame of hope that nearly anything is possible, but we must put our hearts into it," it read in part. "It is up to us now to ensure this flame will never be extinguished."
Roy Jackson remains overwhelmed by the attention Barbaro got and continues to get.
"I stop and think sometimes how broad was this interest," he said. "I don't know."
Nobody does, really.
The Jacksons were surrounded and autographed books, T-shirts, hats, anything that was put in front of them. They posed for pictures. They took in the scene
One fan from Philly, Mary Cebzanob, had a tattoo of Barbaro on her left shoulder blade. Another arrived from Seattle. One woman from Panama City, Fla., had dropped off a medal in July at New Bolton for Barbaro that she carried through her cancer operation. She asked Gretchen about it, wondering if they had the medal.
"I haven't had the time to go through it yet," Gretchen told her.
All day, a continuous loop showed Barbaro's first race (Oct. 4, 2005, at Delaware Park) and the Derby. At 5 p.m., the FOB watched a DVD of NBC's Barbaro documentary (which those at home did not see because a hockey game went into multiple overtimes).
The FOB have raised perhaps $300,000 and saved more than 600 horses from slaughter. So far.
"I know some of the smartest business people in the world," Brown said.
"They could never explain this . . . The model here is simply compassion. It's a really good reflection of what human nature can be." *