As of today, it’s been a decade since Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, answered the starting bell at the Preakness Stakes, moments before jockey Edgar Prado pulled him up with a broken hind leg. Eight months later, he would die of the complications from that injury.
That story is going to be told and re-told during this anniversary Preakness weekend. It’s a familiar and sad story, and usually an incomplete one. One part of it—perhaps the essential part—probably won’t be much discussed at all.
This other part began one minute and 19 seconds before the official start. That was when Barbaro, waiting in Gate Six at Pimlico for the race to begin, lunged forward and crashed through the gate, stumbling low to the track. It was a startling and frightening moment.
And it is a moment that got promptly memory-holed. After the full disaster that followed, everyone swiftly agreed that there was no connection between Barbaro’s awkward false start and the fact that he faltered 100 yards into the race, then stopped running, with his leg shattered in 20 places, after the next 100 yards.
Here would be a good place to put a full video clip of the broadcast, showing the stumble that Barbaro took and his 79-second walk back around the gate to restart the race. Unfortunately, nearly every video online omits the breakout. The second start is the only start. (UPDATE: Thanks to reader Paul, we have video of the complete sequence. See below.)
We did turn up one YouTube clip of the false start, intercut with talking heads in a Barbaro biography. Here’s the moment:
Equally important, though, was what happened afterwards in the unedited telecast. This is how the Chicago Sun-Times described it six days after the race, in a story about “conspiracy theorists” and the false start:
The total elapsed time from the instant Barbaro breaks through the gate (at 1:15:42 of the NBC telecast) until he is jogged back, ostensibly examined and the race begins (at 1:17:01) is 1 minute, 19 seconds. A key live portion of that span—when David G. Zipf, chief veterinarian for the Maryland Racing Commission, insists he examined the colt thoroughly enough to predict a safe run—is not available on the NBC tape because the network opted to replay Barbaro breaking through the gate.
My memory of the video, and of Zaprudering it in bafflement on my own now-long-lost VHS tape, matches that account. At no point was there any footage of a vet touching or closely examining Barbaro’s legs:
(UPDATE: Here is the unedited NBC broadcast.)
In the above AP photo, taken right after the false start, nobody is in the frame with Barbaro but a pair of outriders preparing to lead him back to the gate.
Dr. David Zipf, the Maryland Racing Commission veterinarian on duty, was quoted in the Baltimore Sun describing what the examination involved:
Though he wasn’t caught by NBC’s cameras covering the race, Zipf was on the track, closely observing Barbaro after his false start.
“I was standing behind the gate when he broke through,” Zipf said yesterday. “I followed him through the gate. As they turned him, I watched for a nosebleed, bruises or a shoulder injury. I walked out about 15 or 25 feet, about at the spot where the outriders caught him. Then I trailed him to see how he was moving.
“I could see no problems. If there had been, I would have called the stewards and asked for more time. But he looked perfect.”
There’s the medical basis for the consensus that the accident and the breakdown were unconnected: He looked perfect.
Horse experts told the Sun that they concurred:
Local trainers agreed wholeheartedly the gate played no role in the injury.
“I don’t think one had anything to do with the other,” said Tim Tullock, who stables his horses at Laurel Park. “He broke through the gate, but pulled up nice and smoothly and jogged back perfectly sound.”
“Not related,” said Richard Small, who trains his horses at Pimlico. “It had nothing to do with the gate. It just happens. And it always happens at a time when you least expect it.”
“If he had done it [injured himself] in the starting gate,” said Pimlico trainer Holly Robinson, “he would not have been able to make his way back [to the gate].”
Yet here is a vet who treated Barbaro, explaining to Newsday how it was that the horse accumulated multiple fractures:
According to Larry Bramlage, the attending veterinarian, the fracture above the ankle was probably first. The second, to the pastern below the joint, resulted from Barbaro running perhaps 200 yards on the injury. “[Prado] probably felt it before Barbaro did,” Bramlage said.
“There is no immediate pain to the horse. There is so much adrenaline that the horse has no concept. It’s like dominoes breaking one after another.”
So which is the case? Would any injury from the gate incident have left Barbaro obviously, visibly in pain? Or in his racetime excitement—excitement strong enough to have gotten him to lunge through the gate prematurely—could he have walked back around without feeling it?
The mystery, then and now, is how everyone was so sure that Barbaro didn’t get hurt on the false start. It wasn’t because he got a thorough checkup before reloading. Nor was it because it’s normal for a strong and healthy horse to spontaneously break down out of the gate. The Sun news story the day after the race offered numbers to put the disaster into perspective:
Deaths resulting from catastrophic, fatal injuries suffered at the start of a race are uncommon, according to track statistics that say such deaths occur less than twice per 1,000 starts.
It was a terrible stroke of bad luck. And it’s easier to live with a stroke of bad luck than with a chain of decisions, made in haste and with millions of dollars on the line, that produced a terrible outcome.
At the time, after all, Barbaro was still alive. His chances at ending the decades-long Triple Crown drought were ruined, but the full force of veterinary medicine was being brought to bear to try to bring him along to a happy retirement as a Kentucky Derby champion at stud. Why dwell on how things went wrong? Maybe it would all turn out fine. It almost did.
So we’re left with a sad story to remember, one that maybe doesn’t quite fit the facts. The AP, in an anniversary story this month, presented the story this way:
After tumbling to the dirt at the Preakness, Barbaro was transported to the New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s rural Kennett Square campus[.]
Even the available video shows that there’s something wrong with that account. Barbaro never tumbled to the dirt in the race proper. He just came to a stop, standing on his three good legs. The closest he came to taking a spill was in other part, the part that officially didn’t matter.