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Still living the unforgettable Derby

Jacksons, Barbaro to be honored

Gretchen Jackson pats Barbaro after he won the 2006 Kentucky Derby.
Gretchen Jackson pats Barbaro after he won the 2006 Kentucky Derby.Read more

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The after-party was wrapping up in the Kentucky Derby Museum. Gretchen and Roy Jackson had seen Barbaro winning the Derby over and over on the screens around the center room. They had answered all the questions and relived those 2 minutes they will never forget. It was one of those days you simply hope never ends.

As the Jacksons considered their next move, the lights darkened and the HD film "The Greatest Race" began to play on the 360-degree screen. The Jacksons had just experienced Derby Day, but nobody can experience all of it. Watch the film and you really can. Stand in the middle of the room when the lights go down and you experience Derby Day from dawn until dusk. The Jacksons watched, mesmerized like everybody else in the room.

Last year, with Barbaro and Showing Up in the race, everything was in fast-forward for the Jacksons. When Barbaro ran through the stretch as if he was on fast-forward, running so fast that it appeared the other 19 horses were not running at all, it was one of those moments in sport that you want to freeze-frame.

Now, a year after that unforgettable day and 3 months after deciding to put their Derby winner down, the Jacksons will return to Churchill Downs on Friday. They will be honored, along with Barbaro, on Saturday.

"I think we're going to enjoy ourselves," Gretchen Jackson said. "Obviously, there's going to be some sadness. It's going to be great to see it in a different perspective."

The Jacksons will go back to watch the film again. Each year they change one thing - the ending. It ends with the sights and sounds of the most recent Derby winner - the race call, the stretch run, all of it. This ending will feature Barbaro.

"We remember the day he was born, because we got the phone call from the farm manager saying that it was a big huge wonderful colt," Gretchen told all those Barbaro fans on Sunday at Delaware Park. "We got on the first plane we could to go down and see him. We agreed. We thought he was something, but who knew that he would be this special.

"We have just come a long ways since that day. His racing career was remarkable for us. He just stunned us. I am sure you all feel that way, too.

"Now, that time has passed and Barbaro was hurt and struggled to heal and didn't win. We are now into a new era, and you all are leading the way with Barbaro's spirit."

To be in that Derby Museum when the film is playing is to be back to last May on that glorious Saturday when a Triple Crown seemed just over the horizon. Then, harsh horse-racing reality intervened at Pimlico.

"I'm sure it will be an emotional time, but they've been kind enough to honor Barbaro between two of the races," Roy Jackson said. "I think we should be there. It will be an opportunity. Last year we didn't get to really hear 'My Old Kentucky Home' and see the horses come off the track, because we were coming from the paddock. By the time we got there, the horses were already on their way to the gate."

This year, the Jacksons can hear the song and see the parade without any of the pressure.

A year ago, anything seemed possible with Barbaro. A year later, nobody could have imagined the Jacksons' Derby winner, so invincible that day, would be gone less than a month into the new year.

To some, Barbaro was just a horse. To others, Barbaro has become a symbol. No matter where you fall on that issue, there is no question that Barbaro is one Derby winner that won't be forgotten soon, if ever.

Which was why all those people were in the Grove at Delaware Park on Sunday. They felt a part of something bigger than themselves, even if maybe they could not define it.

What did Gretchen Jackson see when she spoke to all those people?

"Everybody had a really good smile on their face and was listening, which was nice," she said. "I see love and I see affection, and I hope they feel that back from me."

The Jacksons, of course, have become the faces behind the horse. They are both amazed at the continued interest, were really overwhelmed by the scene at Delaware.

"In many ways, I was timid about spending all day [there]," Gretchen said. "I thought I'd be overwhelmed. In a sense, I have some regret I didn't put apart more of my day to get to know more people that were [there]."

They are about to be overwhelmed again. They are scheduled to be in the Derby Museum on Friday. They will see "The Greatest Race." And they will see their horse, their Barbaro, running one of the greatest races any horse has ever run in the greatest race. *