Barbaro, Seabiscuit, and Smarty Jones Part I

Much of my writing is stream of consciousness. I start one place, plan to head in one direction and end up somewhere else. This bit of writing concerns horse racing, and thoroughbred race horses. It was triggered by my life long interest in the sport, which is strange because I have no relationship with horses. I have not been around horses much, and when I have I kept thinking horses are really big and they scare me. I tried to horseback ride twice and fell off both times. It wasn’t the horses fault since my friends picked the oldest horse. So my interest is of something aesthetic, and sporting. In my opinion there is nothing more beautiful then a thoroughbred race horse in full flight. Get a copy of the movie Seabiscuit and watch the part where they take the horse to a farm to find out what he can do and he gallops at top speed along a tree lined road.

I am keeping a vigil. My vigil is about 2 1/2 months. I am waiting for the tragic news that Barbaro, the latest wonder horse, has been euthanized. I feel quite emotional about this. In a strange way I really get attached to these animals. Barbaro won this year’s Kentucky Derby and appeared to have a really good chance to win the Triple Crown of horse racing which includes the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. Barbaro interested me because his story seemed to parallel two other horses that I felt this affection for: Seabiscuit, and Smarty Jones. The interesting parts of these stories involved the horses, of course, but also the people around the horses: the jockeys, trainers, and owners, and the times which these horses raced.

During my vigil I have learned a lot about horses and their anatomy. I have always wondered when a race horse broke his leg why he was euthanized, often at the race course if that’s where the break occurred. The accident to Barbaro was different because they tried to save him because of the owners affection for the animal and the future value of the horse. The accident occured near the start of the Preakness when Barbaro stepped down wrong. The jockey heard a loud crack and knew immediately what had happened. The horse continued to race while the jockey desperately tried to reign him in and get him stopped as soon as possible. This horse weighs 1200 lbs so it wasn’t easy. Barbaro was a heavy favorite to win this race and the Belmont three weeks later. When he was pulled up, the crowd went into shock. A strange quiet came over the crowd. I remember my reaction was “Oh no!” They almost forgot the race as they concentrated on the injured horse.

Barbaro was fitted with a walking cast on the track and transported back to the stable and then on to the hospital where he has been treated by Dr Richardson, who is considered the top surgeon among large animal vets. The plain talking Richardson pulled no punches when he said the horse’s chance for survival was no better then 50-50. The next day a long, very complicated operation was performed to set the bones, his leg broken in three places. They placed metal rods and screws to hold the leg in place, and placed him in cast.

The doctors were facing several problems. Barbaro is a 1200 lb animal in tremendous condition trained to run and race. You could not put him to bed and get him to stay still for 6 weeks. The operation had to have given the horse enough stability to be able to stand and to walk. It seemed to have worked. Within hours the horse was up and walking around. He started eating and even noticed some of the other horses. The two other problems were infection, and laminitis. Infection could set in at the break site and that could be catastrophic. Laminitis was the other more serious problem, a gastro-intestinal disorder that can set in if the horse cannot stand or walk with his weight evenly distributed. In other words if the horse is favoring the leg then laminitis is a problem and it is very painful and lethal to most horses.

All went well for about 6 weeks and then suddenly all went to hell. Infection set in and the horse developed laminitis in a rear hoof and three fourths of the hoof had to be removed. Barbaro had three operations to remove the steel rods and some of the screws. Now Barbaro has a cast on both of his rear legs, and Dr Richardson stated the outcome is poor. So I have been steeling myself to the likely outcome, but there is no way for me to avoid the pain and loss of this magficent animal. Each day I look on the internet for the daily reports expecting the worse, but being the optomist I am I look for any reason to hope. Last week we got some better news that Barbaro had perked up and was prancing around his stall. But still Dr Richardson won’’t give the horse much chance to survive this, but I do.

During the vigil I began to think back about my last story about Smarty Jones and the circumatances of his life and races, and the parallel with Seabiscuit, and now Barbaro.
My interest in horse racing started when I was in junior high school. My Dad took me to the races at Tanforan Race Track outside San Francisco where we lived. It must have been sometime between 1946-1948. I remember clearly the featured race that day had the great Citation. He was a big red horse that won by a perverbial mile. Later he went on to win the triple crown and is considered one of the great horses of all time. Following that I listened each year to the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont. And that has continued until this day.

On days when I was too sick to go to school and after my parents had gone to work, I would get the San Francisco Chronicle out and turn to the racing page. If you had ever looked at the page you would see each race listed, the horses, the jockeys, and the odds. I would pick winners in each race, then turn on the radio and listen to the results and keep track of how much money I would have lost or won that day. It was great fun. So I was aware of the greatness of the horses, but also the gambling side of the sport where most horse race fans get their biggest thrill. And I knew vaguely that this was also a business, and some individuals, and some of the racing farms made a lot of money.

Each year in March and April Sport’s Illustrated began to report on the winners of the major stakes races that led up to the Kentucky Derby. Based on those reports I usually picked a favorite to root for. Then started a string of years where one horse won both the Derby and the Preakness, but lost the Belmont, and therefore did not complete the Triple Crown. The first horse during this period that really caught my fancy was a horse called Funny Cide. I think it was the unusual story surrounding the horse that got my attention. Five friends decided to go in together and buy a race horse. They knew nothing about horse racing and bought a horse named Funny Cide they could afford for about $20,000. Low and behold he won the first two parts of the triple crown, but lost the Belmont.

The next year I was so involved in coaching one of my runners that I didn’t pay attention to the stories about the favorite horses getting ready for the Derby, although I was aware that the Derby was coming up the first week in May. We were traveling to Orange County to a track meet the Saturday that the Derby was run. When I checked into the hotel the first thing I did was turn on the television set, but was too late to see the race. I turned on Sport Center on ESPN and they reported and showed clips of the winner of the Kentucky Derby, Smarty Jones. Smarty Jones, who was that, and what kind of name was that for a Kentucky Derby winner? Well that week some very interesting stories began to appear in the papers and sport magazines not only about Smarty Jones, but about his jockey, his owners, and how he had been discovered and was still undefeated.

About Fred

I am the running coach of Quest Club of Arizona, an adult running club. Formerly coached at Phoenix College for 18 years, and have coached a number of elite runners including Trina Painter and Lisa Weidenbach. Most recently coached Priscilla Hein, graduate of ASU and Olympic Trials semi finalist. In addition to coaching I am the sports publicist for the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference in track and field, and the Meet Director for the NJCAA Region Championships in Cross Country and Track and Field.
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1 Response to Barbaro, Seabiscuit, and Smarty Jones Part I

  1. chris says:

    I suppose you have read all the Black Beauty books by Walter Farley…? He must have thought about horses and such in much the same manner as you do (and me too, really) because he wrote with such reverence about race horses. People may love their dogs or cats or whatever, but they revere horses. I wonder why that is.

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