EVEN TODAY, 10 years later, remembering the sight of Barbaro charging around the first turn at Churchill Downs like the Kentucky Derby just began is chilling. The race had actually been over for 20 seconds, but the margin, the biggest in 60 years, kept getting larger. The colt just kept running like he would never stop, a moment so pure you just wanted to freeze-frame it and stare at it forever.
Roy and Gretchen Jackson had very big dreams for their Derby winner, even beyond the Preakness and a potential Triple Crown. Barbaro was the rare horse that was equally proficient on dirt and grass. The Jacksons were thinking about the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, perhaps a race at the Royal Ascot meeting near Windsor Castle.
It was May 20, 2006 when anything seemed possible for the colt that had run six times and never lost, the 1-2 favorite in the Preakness at Pimlico. Before the field got to the finish line for the first time, Barbaro's right rear leg was shattered, his career on the track over, what could have been gone, a new race on to save the horse that would last 8 months.
The Derby performance was arguably the best since Secretariat's track record in 1973, followed by the worst Preakness moment in the race's history and the months after where a heroic surgeon and his team did everything imaginable for their patient, the owners somehow lived through every good day and bad day and the public got caught up in the epic struggle to save an animal that, all the while, started to feel like their own.
The Jacksons entrusted their horse to Dr. Dean Richardson, Chief of Large Animal Surgery at New Bolton Center in Kennett Square. Richardson is pragmatic and charismatic. He also has the rare gift of being able to explain complex issues so that everybody can understand.
While awaiting a call to a surgery last Wednesday near his office in the C. Mahlon Kline Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Center, Richardson, seated in a conference room, patiently re-created the months he spent trying to save Barbaro.
Has anything changed in his world over the last 10 years that would have given him a better chance?
"The overall surgical techniques are not too different than what I would do today,'' Richardson said. "I think I would do a slightly better job just because one of my goals as a surgeon is to get better at what I do.''
That first surgery essentially pieced Barbaro's leg back together, with screws and plates holding it in place. The chance for complications, however, was always great. More surgeries were necessary.
"The second surgeries, we may have done some things a little differently after he showed signs of the plate starting to break,'' Richardson said. "I'd probably be a little bit more aggressive about slinging him earlier than we did. But it's real easy to say that in retrospect, but making those decisions when you're working on a case are really difficult, particularly on a large stallion. Putting a big stallion in a sling has a lot of problems associated with it in terms of skin problems, urinary problems.''
Bottom line, horses are not good patients. They don't lie in bed. They can't stay still.
"This was not some bizarre, quixotic, never-had-a-chance to be successful surgery,'' Richardson said. "I would hope that people still understand that wasn't like a one-off, crazy effort on one specific horse. We do fractures of that severity not that uncommonly if people are willing to give it a go.''
The Jacksons were willing.
"They certainly don't all make it, but they don't all fail either,'' Richardson said.
The surgery absolutely worked, but Richardson warned that first night, barely 24 hours after the Preakness, about laminitis, the painful and often deadly hoof condition.
"Laminitis is the breakdown of the hoof structures of the foot that is opposite the injured leg,'' Richardson explained. "It's bearing too much weight too much of a percentage of the time that the horse is standing.''
Every horse with a broken leg is different. Some, Richardson said, can stand on three legs for months and never get laminitis.
"What we do know is that when it happens with a big thoroughbred race horse, it's a real problem,'' Richardson said.
With a smaller animal, laminitis is a different issue.
"I must have received thousands of letters and e-mails upset that we didn't just amputate his leg and put a prosthesis on,'' Richardson said. "There's plenty of ponies that have gotten that, but doing it on a 3-year-old thoroughbred that has to be saved to be a comfortable, happy horse, that wasn't an option.''
Barbaro got laminitis in that opposite foot in July and they almost lost him then. The horse responded incredibly to treatment.
"He was blooming in August,'' Richardson said. "He was outside eating grass every day. His coat was beautiful.''
That fall, it really looked like Barbaro might make it.
"I'm not that naive and I would never have written it down or stated it,'' Richardson said. "But in my heart I wanted to believe it pretty much from late August through December.''
That opposite foot, however, wasn't growing out well enough.
"We knew that needed to be perfect,'' Richardson said. "You've got just X amount of time because something else bad is going to happen. And that's what happened. When his left hind didn't grow out properly, you know you're going to get abscesses and infections in that. You're going to overload his broken right hind which was healed, but it wasn't perfect.''
Richardson is confident the right hind leg would have held up over time, without all the other complications. The final complication came in January when the fractured leg got overstressed, the laminitis returned and spread to the front feet. Barbaro's front end had, in Richardson's words, "given out.'' There was only one decision.
"If you do what I do, you have lots of thinking back on what could I have done differently,'' Richardson said. "That isn't one of them.''
The decision was made on the morning of Jan. 29, 2007.
"To be the one to actually put the euthanasia solution in the vein is not a good part of the job,'' Richardson said. "People say it must be nice to put a horse out of its misery. It's nice in the sense that it's better than watching a horse suffer, but it's not a pleasant chore by any stretch.''
When it comes to the end, Richardson does not want one of the residents or junior personnel to have to do it. He does it himself.
Just before the visit with Richardson, Roy Jackson, over lunch at Sovana Bistro a few miles west of New Bolton off Street Road, remembered that time in his life.
The Jacksons still race horses. Their stable is doing well. They have moved on with their horse-racing lives. The Derby moment lives on.
"We were in shock that he ran away from the field like he did,'' Jackson said.
So, really was everybody. It was a hint of the possibilities. Then, two weeks later, they were gone.
"We had all our kids there,'' Jackson said. "You're not prepared for that. It took a while to get yourself together as to what had happened. And then on top of that, all the outpouring, we had no idea anything like that was going to happen.''
The signs on the fence at New Bolton, the letters, the non-stop attention, it was overwhelming, but also, "I think it helped get us through the whole thing,'' Jackson said, "there was so much support and so much interest.''
He and his wife, Roy said, are "private people,'' but their trainer Michael Matz, an Olympic show jumper, explained to them that "the horse has generated so much interest, we have to be open and include the American public.''
So they did.
"Every year on his birthday or the day he was put down, they get contributions here at New Bolton,'' Jackson said. "Ten years later, it's still going on.''
They got letters from all 50 states and 14 foreign countries.
"We've got three of four of those plastic containers filled with letters,'' Jackson said.
Even as they shared most of the details 10 years ago, they knew all the details.
"(Dean) would do his rounds in the morning and he'd call us every morning between a quarter to seven and seven,'' Jackson said. "Some days were good, some days were bad.''
When the laminitis hit in the summer of 2006, the Jacksons were close to making a decision to end it then. That fall, they thought there was a real chance for Barbaro to have a future. Then late January came.
"It had reached the critical stage and the only sensible thing was to put him down,'' Jackson said.
The last day, Jackson said, was "sad, difficult, most difficult for Dean, at least that's my observation because he looked at it as though he had failed.''
There was no failure of course. It was always the attempt that so galvanized the public. Richardson was always straight with that public, telling everybody from the beginning that it could go either way.
"That's kind of Roy, but I'm a big boy,'' Richardson said. "I've failed before. I'm going to fail again. It doesn't get easy, but when you do what I do, you don't accept failure, but you recognize that it's part of the business . . .
"Don't get me wrong. It was incredibly difficult . . . You really wanted him to be saved for the Jacksons because these are clearly people who adored this horse and really loved him for the right reasons.''
With the benefit of hindsight, Jackson said: "We wouldn't do anything different. We got fairly close to a decent outcome.''
If Barbaro had lived, the plan was for him to become a stallion, if that was possible.
" If they had said it would be a risk, we probably would have just brought him back to the farm and let him live out his life there,'' Jackson said.
Barbaro's dam, La Ville Rouge, recently retired from breeding, hangs out in a field at the Jacksons' Lael Farm, just 3.3 miles from New Bolton. All of her foals were colts until the last two, both fillies, one a 3-year-old, the other a yearling.
The 3-year-old is named Mo'ne Davis after the Taney Dragons pitcher, a student at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, Gretchen Jackson's alma mater. The filly will likely get to the races later this year.
That filly and her younger sister are by Bernardini, the horse that ended up in the Preakness winner's circle on the day Barbaro could run no more.
They will run the Kentucky Derby again Saturday. And when fans are pouring into Churchill Downs through Gate 1 off Central Avenue, they will pass a towering statue, Barbaro in full flight, tearing through the stretch, winning the Derby forever.