||February 8th, 2007|
by lyle e davis
Shorty Rogers and Barbaro never knew each other.
When Shorty was in his prime, Barbaro hadn’t even been born; and when Barbaro was in his prime, Shorty had long since gone on to the great big race track in the sky.
But, had Shorty Rogers and Barbaro known each other they would have loved one another. They were both one of a kind.
Shorty Rogers and his wife, Jeanne, moved into our neighborhood back in the 1950’s.
They bought a modest little two bedroom home in the 6900 block of Binney Street in Omaha, Nebraska.
You may have heard of Omaha, Nebraska. It’s a city out on the plains of the midwest. Lots of folks probably still think of Omaha as “that little cowtown out in the middle of nowhere.” Well, Omaha, which used to be the livestock capital of the nation, is no longer a little old cowtown, nor is it any longer the livestock capital of the nation.
Today, Omaha is a modern, bustling, very successful, and quite cosmopolitan city. But, it is still in the midwest, where wintry winds blow mighty cold and summers tend to be hot and muggy. Omaha was also once the home of Ak-Sar-Ben, a racetrack of some note that drew throngs of folks from throughout the midwest so that they might have an opportunity of turning a $2 bet into a small fortune.
Sometimes it even happened.
This is just one thing that drew Shorty and Jean Rogers to Omaha. They were horse people. They loved the ponies, they loved the races, and they loved Ak-Sar-Ben. (For those not in the know, I’m about to reveal a sacred secret that we midwesterners have seldom shared with outsiders. Ak-Sar-Ben is a secret code word that was formed by simply reversing the name “Neb-raS-kA.” We Huskers are devilishly clever. Keep this quiet).
Shorty worked for ADT, the burglar alarm folks, on the night shift. He’d get home about 6am, sleep for two or three hours, then he and Jean would head for Ak-Sar-Ben to check out the ponies. It got to where Shorty knew all of the owners, the trainers, and the jockeys.
In time, Shorty told us how and why he went to the track so often and so early. Due to his friendship and close working relationship with horse people he got to where he had inside information. Most horse people in any given race have a fair idea of which horse should win the race . . . some races they know it’s dead solid certain the horse is gonna win. They’re not fixed . . . it’s just that the horse is ready, the jockey is ready and, barring any accident on the track, that horse is gonna win.
Shorty had a stable of jockeys that, several of whom, as they left the paddock area, would tap their boot with their riding crop four times (number four horse), six times, (bet the number six horse). Shorty bet a lot of money and he made a lot of money. Once in awhile he’d lose, but not often.
I thought it interesting that no matter how much money Shorty won he and Jean continued to live in that modest little two bedroom home on Binney Street. Why, I’m sure he declared all of his winnings to the IRS!
In time, Shorty decided to start passing his tips on to me. I’d rush to the betting cage, put down $6 on a combo, $10 combo, sometimes putting it all on the nose to win. But, I was a young man at the time, didn’t have a lot of money and couldn’t afford to lose a lot so didn’t bet a lot. Also, being young, it was important that I be held in high esteem . . . that I be “important” in the eyes of my peers. So I started sharing the tips with my pals, letting them know that I had “inside” information. That I was a ‘big shot.’
Eventually, this got back to Shorty. “Son,” he said, “I make a living at this. You pass this information around and the odds go way down. You’re taking money out of my pocket.”
I never got another tip from Shorty after that. I learned the hard way that sometimes it’s a good idea to keep your mouth shut.
Shorty and Jean would follow the ponies after they left Ak-Sar-Ben. They’d go to Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico, Arlington in Chicago, wherever the ponies were, Shorty and Jean would follow them, work schedule permitting. (He had to have some type of legitimate work/income to report to the IRS.)
While I was never a nut about horse racing . . . I could take it or leave it . . . and I mostly left it, I found that one horse would occasionally stand out from the others.
I remember one, Cassopolis, a big grey horse that always started at the back of the pack . . . and stayed there. Until the three quarter pole. On that stretch for home Cassopolis turned on the afterburners. He’s come in as a winner more often than not. He was a horse you had to admire.
There were other great horses we came to know . . . and follow. Great owners, great trainers. Marion Van Berg I recall as a name that practically always saddled winners. He is, in fact, in the American Hall of Fame as a horse trainer; so is his son, Jack. Jack trained and saddled Alysheba who won the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and the 1988 Breeders' Cup Classic. Van Berg has led the nation in wins nine times. So, those folks knew horses, knew training, knew racing. And they raced at Ak-Sar-Ben. Often.
They likely would have been one of the first to sing the praises of the late, great Barbaro.
As would have Shorty Rogers.
Horse people know a champion when they see one . . . and they recognize a champion’s heart as well.
But Barbaro didn’t really require the observer to be a nationally known or recognized horse owner or trainer . . . or patron of the tote machines. Most everyone fell in love with this magnificent horse . . . this handsome, sleek, well behaved gentleman of the racing circuit.
This mighty horse was an American thoroughbred that decisively won the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Then, on May 20, 2006, he ran in the Preakness Stakes as a heavy favorite, but he fractured three bones in and around the ankle of his right hind leg shortly after the start of the race.
Race fans at Pimlico wept. Within 24 hours fans across the country seemed to be caught up in a “Barbaro watch.”
They imagined his pain, grimaced each time he faltered, took heart as each day passed and he was still alive, making painfully slow progress.
The 2006 Kentucky Derby winner’s fight for survival was their fight, a symbol of strength, courage and comfort — and, more than anything else, a source of inspiration.
He was, after all, winner of the world’s most famous race, in a sport desperate for a superstar. For months he seemed, remarkably, to take everything that came at him: good and bad.
Following the race on Sunday, May 21, led by Dr. Richardson, the New Bolton medical team operated for a total of nine hours on multiple fractures to Barbaro's right hind leg as well as a dislocated fetlock. The surgery required a metal rod and 23 screws to help stabilize a long pastern bone that had shattered into more than 20 pieces. Photographs of Barbaro being lifted out of the recovery pool at New Bolton that evening became an enduring symbol of the long hours of the operation. In the weeks following his recovery, Barbaro was struck with acute laminitis in his opposite hind foot, requiring the doctors at New Bolton to place Barbaro in a sling for nearly 12 hours at a time, as the horse's life was plunged into peril once more. Barbaro pulled through the crisis, but remained in the intensive care unit at the New Bolton Center.
Then a deep abscess in the right hind hoof began causing discomfort last week, and surgery was required to insert two steel pins in a bone to eliminate all weight bearing on the ailing right rear foot.
While his right leg eventually healed, a final risky surgery on it proved futile because the colt soon developed further laminitis in both front legs. It then became clear he could not be saved, and Barbaro was euthanized on January 29, 2007.
Folks who have never wagered so much as a dollar cried when Barbaro was finally put down, after his valiant struggle. They knew the world had lost something very special.
Writers from throughout the sports world . . . not just horse racing but all sports, sought to capture the words to express the feelings we human beings had at the sad news of Barbaro having lost his gallant battle. One Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Jeff Neuman did a pretty good job of it:
Why We Mourn Barbaro
By Jeff Neuman
HE never talked about himself in the third person.
He didn’t trash-talk, taunt or hang on the rim. Down the stretch of the Kentucky Derby, he didn’t turn and point at Bluegrass Cat, and he didn’t somersault over the finish line. After crossing the line, he didn’t pull out a Sharpie and autograph his saddle for his business manager.
He never referred to his handlers as “my supporting cast.”
He never tried to renegotiate his contract. He never turned down an eight-figure offer by saying, “I’ve got a family to feed, man.”
His only tattoo was discreetly hidden.
He did no commercials for cellphone plans, credit cards, fast food chains or time shares.
He never had his agent issue a statement in which he apologized “if anybody took my actions the wrong way.”
He never appeared before a Congressional committee and lied about his steroid use.
He never dated Paris Hilton.
He was never involved in an altercation with a belligerent fan outside a club at 4 in the morning. He was never arrested for drunken driving. He did not own an unregistered handgun.
He never claimed he’d been disrespected. He never left his competitors in the dust and then said, ”I didn’t have my A game.” He did not attribute his victories to the glory of his personal Savior.
Isiah Thomas never tried to trade for him.
He was never a presenter at the ESPYs.
He never claimed he was misquoted in his autobiography. He never confessed to a double murder in the subjunctive tense.
He trained, ate and slept. He ran his races, gave his best effort, accepted plaudits graciously, went back to his stall and prepared to do it again the next time out.
He never fathered multiple offspring out of wedlock. Alas.
Another writer, Pat Forde, a national columnist from ESPN.com wrote:
The Death of Barbaro
Meets Harsh Reality
At Churchill Downs they post the name of every Kentucky Derby winner on the white walls of the place, literally encircling the paddock area in 132 years of rich racing history.
From Aristides in 1875 to Citation in 1948 to Secretariat in 1973, you read the names and channel the majesty.
But for as long as the place stands, everyone who experienced the bittersweet racing summer of 2006 will look at the sign saying "Barbaro" and feel a spasm of sadness. No Derby story ever took such a sharp turn toward tragedy. Two minutes of glory, followed by two weeks of adulation.
An instant of horror, followed by weeks of worry.
Then weeks of cautious, growing optimism.
Then sudden, dire concern.
Now a final moment of sorrow.
That was Barbaro's vivid streak across our consciousness. From a stirring sprint down the stretch in Louisville on the first Saturday in May to a horrible afternoon two weeks later in Baltimore to a somber announcement from a Pennsylvania animal hospital in January, he left his mark on us.
It is a testament to his athletic prowess and equine beauty that we cared this much. It is a testament to the will and skill of many humans that he lived this long. Yet ultimately it is a testament to the brutal realities of thoroughbred racing as it exists today: Despite every effort of man and medicine, this magnificent colt could not be saved from injuries that are far too common in the sport of kings.
"I won't say it was a surprise, but I will say that my heart broke and 100 million hearts broke with mine because we had all gotten so connected with this horse," Laura Hillenbrand, author of "Seabiscuit," said in an exclusive interview with ABC News. "Some of it has to do with the time we're living in. We wanted to find a story that had a happy ending and for so long it seemed like this story was going to have a happy ending."
Given the fragility of the breed and the amount of stress inflicted upon these animals at the young age of 3, we're probably lucky these catastrophic breakdowns don't happen more often. And in the case of Barbaro, we're absolutely lucky there was ever any hope of survival at all.
From the moment the colt's shattered right hind leg torqued out at a gruesome angle just 200 yards into the Preakness last May 20, it took a heroic effort from everyone involved to give Barbaro a chance to live as long as he did.
Jockey Edgar Prado brought the surging and scared colt to a rapid halt, giving the track vets a chance to treat him on the Pimlico front stretch. Emergency personnel quickly vanned Barbaro from Baltimore to the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa. Once there, Dr. Dean Richardson performed a surgery described as both intricate and exquisite to stabilize the colt's fractured leg.
Richardson warned everyone it would take months to heal the horse, with many pitfalls along the way. Despite the efforts of the doctor and his staff, and the unwavering dedication of owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, Richardson's prediction proved depressingly accurate.
Laminitis, a debilitating and often fatal hoof disease, set in on Barbaro's left hind leg during early July. But even after surgery to remove most of the hoof, the colt showed remarkable progress -- to the point that in December, Barbaro's release to the rolling bluegrass hills of a Kentucky horse farm seemed imminent.
It never happened. Laminitis intensified, and an abcess developed in the hoof of the damaged right hind leg. The combination became too much to overcome. Monday, 254 days after the injury and 268 days after he became a racing hero, Barbaro was put down.
Hard-luck horse racing did it to us again, capturing our imagination and then breaking our hearts. For every Seabiscuit, it seems there are two or three Barbaros.
It's a sport rife with romanticism, brimming with inspirational stories fit for accompaniment by soaring cinematic symphony scores. But the romance is shattered easily, as brittle as the bones in a 1,200-pound horse's skinny legs.
The colt's death probably can't be blamed on the usual racing suspects. Nobody believes the horse was physically unsound. Nobody believes the Pimlico Race Course surface was unsafe on Preakness Saturday. Nobody believes this had anything to do with an American obsession on breeding for speed, or pushing a young horse too hard, or Triple Crown races bunched too closely together.
It was, most likely, either one horribly bad step or -- if you believe, as some do, that Brother Derek accidentally kicked Barbaro shortly after the start -- one horribly bad bit of timing.
But obsessing over that individual injury misses the bigger picture, which shows that horse racing routinely devours its stars.
At Arlington Park in Chicago, the '06 summer race meet was devastated by the catastrophic breakdowns of 17 horses in racing and three during morning training hours. In California there were more than 240 fatalities at horse tracks between 2003 and 2005.
Here are the issues horse racing must now confront and discuss, in the wake of its worst fatal breakdown since Ruffian in 1975:
"Safer racing surfaces. Turfway Park in northern Kentucky has gone to Polytrack, a synthetic surface, with encouraging results in terms of reduced injuries. Tradition-steeped Keeneland in Lexington is switching to Polytrack in time for its October meet. Tracks in California have been mandated to adapt to Polytrack as well.
" A change in medication controls. In recent decades thoroughbreds have become walking pharmaceutical labs, routinely running on blood-thinning medication and anti-inflammatories. There is concern that some of these drugs are used to keep horses going through infirmities and injuries -- and those are the legal drugs. (Every track backside buzzes with whispers about which trainers are a step ahead of the drug-testing posse.)
At the very least, it would help to have more uniform rules on what's allowed from state to state, and how to test for the latest contraband.
Just getting horses to the Kentucky Derby has become a battle of attrition. Take a snapshot of the Derby starting gate the minute it opens and record it for posterity. Many of the horses in the field will never be heard from again after that race. A large number of them are cooked each year in the rigorous campaign up to the run for the roses.
Why not, the argument goes, wait until the horses are mature enough to handle the grind?
" A change in calendar, adding more time between the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Instead of packing all three long and grueling races into five weeks, space them out between the first weekends of May, June and July.
This also is an affront to ancient tradition, but it would seem a more likely and palatable alternative than making the Triple Crown a 4-year-old competition. It might sustain interest in racing over a longer period, and it would definitely increase the likelihood of having more horses race in all three legs of the Crown. This year, for the second time this century, no horse ran in all three races.
Change is not something thoroughbred racing does well, but doing nothing should not be an option. Doing something to make the sport safer would burnish Barbaro's legacy, and might lessen the sadness we'll feel when we see his name on the Churchill Downs wall.
"There's been an increase in racing-related injuries," Del Mar's president Joe Harper said. "Of course, it was all brought to light by Barbaro in the Preakness."
During Barbaro's plight, his owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, had continually given a green light to the veterinarians to do all they could to save Barbaro. They even got involved and became outspoken on horse slaughter in the United States.
"I'm sincere in my desire to see this ended," Gretchen Jackson said. "I didn't realize the grotesqueness of the whole thing. I intend to be more responsible."
An anti-slaughter bill is pending before Congress. If approved, it would shut down the three foreign-owned plants in the United States that slaughter horses and ship the meat overseas.
About 88,000 horses, mules and other equines were slaughtered in 2005, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
While the Jacksons are moving forward - they have about 15 horses in training and 25 mares for breeding purposes - some still question why they would spend so much money to try and save Barbaro.
Cost estimates have ranged from tens of thousands to a few million dollars, and the Jacksons have yet to see a bill. "I'll cringe when I see it," Gretchen Jackson said.
Dean Richardson, the chief surgeon at New Bolton who cared for Barbaro, says it's not even "remotely productive" to discuss costs.
The Jacksons are well off and have said money was never an issue. Their first thought was to save the horse. Now, they hope others will try to do the same.
"Rich or poor, I would like to think money wouldn't interfere with any animal if it meant doing whatever was possible to save it," Gretchen Jackson said. "Roy and I have the same values - we treasure, we revere animals, and God forbid money should get in the way of their care. See if you can save an animal, then see about paying the bill."
Chances are the Jackson’s will have enough money to pay the vet bill, no matter what size it is. Roy Jackson is an extremely wealthy individual who has close ties to the Rockefeller fortune.
Barbaro was owned and bred by Gretchen and Roy Jackson's Lael Stables in West Grove, Pennsylvania.
Roy Jackson grew up in Edgemont, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, the son of MacRoy Jackson and Almira Geraldine (Rockefeller) Jackson Scott, who was a prominent local horsewoman. His grandfather, William Goodsell Rockefeller, was once treasurer of Standard Oil Company.
Commenting on the New Bolton Center, where Barbaro was treated, Jackson said, "They have been remarkable throughout the whole process. Dean Richardson has done a wonderful job in explaining Barbaro's condition to the general public in layman's terms. Barbaro has brought them to the forefront, but they've been able to do remarkable things through combined research between the medical school and the vet school. They are leaders in their field."
After Barbaro had been put down, well-wishers young and old showed up at the New Bolton Center with cards, flowers, gifts, goodies and even religious medals, and thousands of e-mails poured into the hospital’s Web site. The biggest gift has been the $1.2 million raised since early June for the Barbaro Fund, money to be put toward needed equipment such as an operating room table and a raft and sling for the same pool recovery Barbaro used after his surgeries.
“This horse was a hero,” said David Switzer, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association. “His owners went above and beyond the call of duty to save this horse. It’s an unfortunate situation, but I think they did the right thing in putting him down.”
And so, Barbaro would never get his chance at a Triple. His career, which earned $2,302,200, would end in the Preakness, where that horrible misstep would lead to his only loss in seven starts.
A lot of folks have felt the pain of Barbaro’s loss; somewhere, I suspect, Shorty Rogers has also had a few tears to dry.