May 24, 2006

A great day for racing turns to tragedy

By Steve Ginsburg - Witness

BALTIMORE (Reuters) - The emotions arrive at once, a
tangled concoction of fear, reverence, sadness and anger.

Within seconds I know that what began as a sports story on
a sun-drenched Saturday has just been transformed into an event
that will have bus drivers, lawyers and 12-year-old schoolgirls

I have covered horse racing for a quarter of a century,
including every Preakness Stakes over the last two decades. In
a strange yet ghastly way, this may be my most memorable race.

The great thoroughbred champion Barbaro has just pulled up
in the first 200 yards of the Preakness with a conspicuous limp
that usually means the colt will never leave the race track

A collective gasp from the record crowd of 118,000 at
Pimlico Race Course -- followed by an eerie silence -- envelops
the urban Baltimore track. All eyes are trained on Barbaro.

Perched just below the grandstand roof, I instinctively
raise my hands to each side of my head, hoping, even praying,
that the tall, muscular colt will just shake off the injury.

But I know better.

Barbaro impulsively tries to go on running. Jockey Edgar
Prado jumps off the colt to try to calm the majestic animal.
The horse perilously holds its right hind leg off the dirt.

The ankle dangles. So does his life.

With my eyes riveted on the distressed colt, I realize the
race is continuing.

As a news agency correspondent, I understand the world is
waiting to know who won the Preakness. But the world needs to
know that Barbaro, expected by many to win the Triple Crown and
achieve equine immortality, has sustained a life-threatening

In the best of circumstances, covering a horse race is
harrowing. Two minutes of torment. Who won? When did he grab
the lead? Did the jockey use the whip? If so, in which hand was

A Reuters correspondent does not have the luxury of
watching replays before kicking out the story. We do not have
the time to craft the perfect lead on the first go-round.
Write. Quickly. The world is waiting.


My mind races. Is Barbaro the story? What if it's a minor
injury? It could happen. Do I go with the Preakness winner?
Move Barbaro to the second paragraph? Can't do that.

I crane my neck back and forth. Barbaro is obviously in
pain. Prado is anguished. He is looking in the crowd for help.
From anyone. The crowd grows silent. Like Now has the lead.
Brother Derek closes in.

It is as if I am watching a tennis match, frantically
moving my head back and forth -- from Barbaro to the right, to
the ongoing race, heading to the left.

Like Now fading. Pimlico horsemen running to Barbaro.
Sweetnorthersaint closing in. A horse surges to the lead. Is
that Bernardini? Barbaro keeps his hoof off the ground.

As Bernardini crosses the finish line first, I wildly write
that he has won after Barbaro broke down. Both had to be in the
first paragraph. The press room is spookishly quiet as
reporters race in from the outside railing and gather around
the television to watch the replays.

Cries can be heard outside the press room. Is the
coronation a funeral?

I write as quickly as I can.

My thoughts slide back to Ruffian, the champion filly who
had never lost until breaking a leg in a 1975 match race at
Belmont Park with Foolish Pleasure.

Still today I remember watching in horror on television
when Ruffian tried to go on racing on a fractured leg. Just
like Barbaro. She is buried near the flagpole at Belmont Park.

Her nose is pointed toward the finish line.

As I craft the second, third and fourth updates of the
story, an interview with trackside veterinarian Larry Bramlage
piped into the press room is ominous.

"Keep your fingers crossed and say a prayer," he says. A
colleague looks at me. I look back. We go back to work.

Barbaro had never lost, having won on turf, on the dirt and
even on a sloppy track. He won the Kentucky Derby by the widest
margin in 60 years.

He will never race again. It will not be known for months
if he lives.

Over the years, I've seen many unforgettable moments in
sport. This is one for all of the wrong reasons.