Legacy of 2007 Kentucky Derby Winner Barbaro

Barbaro being loaded to leave Churchill Downs for Pimlico

Barbaro being loaded to leave Churchill Downs for Pimlico

“You never forget when an icon goes. The enormity of the occasion is seared in your memory,” said Alex Brown, author of the book “Greatness & Goodness: Barbaro and His Legacy.”

Alex Brown knows just where he was in 1977, when he learned of Elvis Presley’s demise. And then again in 1997, when he heard that Princess Diana had died. And on Jan. 29, 2007 when he got the news that, after a game fight for life, a champion racehorse named Barbaro had passed away.

In hindsight, he said, perhaps no other thoroughbred so captured the country’s heart as the undefeated 3-year-old who shattered his leg in 20 places during the 2006 Preakness at Pimlico Race Course and spent the next seven months battling for survival at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center. Cards, flowers, horse treats and well-wishers flooded the veterinary center and the farm of owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson.

Five years after Barbaro’s death, his trainer, Michael Matz, still has several of his shoes tucked safely away.   “How can I not think of him all of the time?” Matz said. “He brought racing together more than anyone had done in a long time. Barbaro was a fighter, for sure; he just couldn’t win that last battle.

“His injury, and the long vigil that followed, was a heart-tugger,” said John Eisenberg, a former Baltimore Sun columnist who cowrote “My Guy Barbaro: A Jockey’s Journey Through Love, Triumph, and Heartbreak with America’s Favorite Horse,” with jockey Edgar Prado. “For America, it was like sitting up with a sick relative, getting good news and bad, and hoping for the best.”

“He had so much in front of him yet. Where he would have fit in with other great horses, we’ll never know. It’s a shame he couldn’t have passed his spirit and his will on to (his progeny).”

Instead, says John Eisenberg, what Barbaro left behind was a public awareness that thoroughbreds are more than a gambler’s plaything.

Brown agreed.

“Thanks to social media, average people could follow that horse and share their sorrows,” he said. “Before Barbaro came along, people didn’t talk in terms of horse slaughter, or the rescue of retired thoroughbreds, or even about the cause of laminitis, the disease that eventually put him down.

“As short a life as he led, he had a huge impact on the industry. He shifted the needle, and if that’s your legacy, you’ve led a hell of a life.”