Saturday, June 09, 2007

Ruffian: Barbaro's Breakdown Through the Lens of Racing's Legendary Filly

"In the end, beyond all the screams and cries and the lifting of that ominous screen, at the center of all the clamor and the chaos and that scent of panic curling upward in the tremulous air, young Barbaro stood naked in the grandstand shade, his shoulder muscles quivering as he shifted on his three perfect feet. Gnawing on the bit between his teeth, his large eyes rolling white with panic, the bay raised and pumped the shattered remnant of his right rear leg, broken like a jigsaw puzzle in some thirty places. He touched the foot to the ground, raised it once more, and angrily punched the air.

"Seeing this, I felt as though I'd been transported back in time again, doing it all over once again, running madly through the clubhouse and down the stairs two at a time, gulping sunlight as I stepped onto the Pimlico racetrack. Piddling along with my head down, I walked toward the stricken horse as if in sleep, fumbling and feeling my way along the damp walls of the same recurring nightmare that long ago I'd come to know so well, the one where Ruffian had come and gone in a thrash of dying light.

"Jamie Richardson, the track superintendent, was crouching under Barbaro and working to fit him with a temporary aluminum splint. A handful of racetrack workers stood on either side of the horse, trying to keep him calm while Richardson worked under him. Barbaro was in deepening pain as the flow of natural adrenaline began to wear off. He looked worried and confused. In his brief and simple life, he had always had four legs on which to stand and move and now for the first time he had only three, and he had never known such pain, and all of this and the excitement were arousing fear in his eyes. Barbaro lifted and cocked his injured leg, then flashed it just past Richardson's ear, missing it by inches.

"Watch it, dammit!" said a voice. "He'll kick your brains out."

"Whoa! Whoa, son," said Richardson.

"Easy with him," said a voice from the crowd.

"Oh jeez, oh jeez, please be careful with him," said another.

"A man appeared carrying a walkie-talkie telephone. The crowd on the track grew larger. "Where's the doc?" the man said. "Get the X-ray machine to Barbaro's stall. Now! That's right. And make sure Doc Dreyfuss can get out on the track ... Who are all these people? Get these people off the track."

"From the fans pressed against the nearby rail came a woman's voice: "Help him! Please help him."

"Richardson was having trouble fitting on the cast. The colt kept moving the injured leg. "Whoa, son ... whoa," he said. "Hold him. Hold him."

"More fans gathered behind the fence, faces hung as in a still-life watercolor, hands on lips, fingers on cheeks, women in tears. "Don't kill him," one said. "Please, please don't kill him!"

"She had seen the screen, the one they always raise to protect the people from their feelings, to block the view of crowds when they have to destroy hopelessly injured animals through lethal injection, and Barbaro looked wild-eyed when he saw the large screen looming towards him. The horse's trainer, Michael Matz, shouted, "Get that screen out of here! You're scaring the horse."

"The cast was on and the ambulance door opened. "We're ready to load," said a member of the ambulance crew. "Get the horse turned around."

"Barbaro hobbled onto the back of the van and left to a flutter of cheers."

How amazing that one person could have been present at the breakdowns of both Barbaro and Ruffian, even though they occured 30 years apart. How fortunate that that one person should have been the bard of American horse journalism. The lines above the opening paragraphs of Bill Nack's new book"Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance", a slim but compellingly poignant tribute to one of the world's greatest racehorses...and to the tragedy of racetrack breakdowns. Nack's book has been made into a movie by ESPN and will be shown on ABC-TV at 9 pm tonight, starring real-life horseman Sam Shepherd as trainer Frank Whitely.

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