Preakness: ‘50 strides to a nightmare’

May 23, 2006 1:17 AM

Less than 50 strides after the gates sprung open for Saturday’s Preakness, the sweet smell of success that racing had enjoyed since Barbaro won the Kentucky Derby two weeks earlier turned irreparably sour.

About 100 yards — that’s how long it took for Barbaro to fracture his right hind ankle and be pulled up by jockey Edgar Prado.

Pick any adjective that expresses debilitating disappointment and it describes the shocking disbelief of Barbaro being taken out of the race before he reached the finish line for the first time. When Barbaro’s ankle broke, so did the heart of every racing fan in America.

Poof! Just like that. Call it the Unpalatable Preakness.

The calamity extinguished Barbaro’s 6½-length triumph in the Derby, his potential as the first Triple Crown winner in 28 years and the promise of an undefeated superstar whose legend now will only grow with time.

In a heartbeat, life’s priorities came into acute focus. Barbaro, the easiest Derby winner in 60 years and the 1-2 favorite to win the Preakness, would not complete the race. He had been pulled up. But would he run again? No. His racing career was over. Would he live? That depends on howe he reacts to seven hours of surgery that was performed Sunday. His life is hanging precariously in the balance.

Officially, the dark bay colt suffered a condylar fracture of the cannon bone in his right hind leg above the ankle, and a commuted fracture (meaning it is in pieces) below the ankle, according to Dr. Larry Bramlage. The prominent equine surgeon was the on call veterinarian at the Preakness, representing the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

Quick reaction by the masterful Prado likely curtailed more serious damage to the colt’s ankle. Prado’s act was reminiscent of heroics rendered by the late Chris Antley, who cradled Charismatic’s injured left leg two jumps after he crossed the wire in the 1999 Belmont in an unsuccessful bid to win the Triple Crown.

The Preakness victory by eventual winner Bernardini was anticlimactic, bittersweet and tainted. It was like expecting a date with Catherine Zeta-Jones and winding up with one of Marge Simpson’s sisters. It was like anticipating the rhythm and grace of Fred and Ginger and enduring clumsy noise from the thumping feet of the Blues Brothers.

Would Barbarini have won if Barbaro had not been injured? It will remain a question for the ages, just as Barbaro’s injury will forever remain a sports tragedy. He will go down as an equine version of James Dean, his career eternally fraught by a vast void of potential unfulfilled.

If the Preakness script had been submitted as a Stephen King novel, it would have been rejected as sadistically surreal, even by Hollywood’s shameless standards.

Meanwhile, reality reigns. There are no sure things in racing. No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Barbaro thus joins the ill-fated ranks of Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Swale (1984), Alysheba (1987), Hansel (1991), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), Point Given (2001), War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004) and Afleet Alex last year as horses that through injury or fate have failed to capture the Triple Crown.

The final leg of the series, the Belmont Stakes, takes place June 10. Who will win it? Who cares?

The racing world is in mourning.

THE HOMESTRETCH

”¡ The California Horse Racing Board has mandated that major in-state tracks have Polytrack surfaces installed by the end of next year if they expect to receive race dates. While the majority of horsemen are in favor of the synthetic surface that is safer for horses to race over, some are on hold.

"I don’t have an opinion for or against Polytrack, because I don’t know enough about it, and I don’t think anybody else does," said 59-year-old Darrell Vienna, one of racing’s most erudite trainers, who holds a psychology degree from UCLA and a law degree at Loyola Law School.

"I think we need to know more," Vienna continued. "I’m glad that someone realizes we need to change things. I don’t believe California is the only place that needs change, and maybe Polytrack is the solution, but I haven’t seen enough data, nor has anyone I’ve spoken to. I think everybody wants to experiment towards having a better track, but I don’t want to be a guinea pig. Let someone else be the guinea pig."

”¡ Richie Silverstein, agent for Martin Pedroza, on the impact sensational apprentice Martin Garcia will have now that he’s abandoned the Bay Area to become a regular on the Southern California circuit: "It will have a definite trickle-down effect on the journeyman riders and he might help fellow bug riders Juan Ochoa, Saul Arias and William Antongeorgi.

"It will be great for racing that we have a bunch of young guys who ride hard," "Silverstein said. "But, it definitely takes away business for some of the older riders. Garcia will be in the top 10, maybe the top five. Whatever spot he’s in, he’s pushing somebody down to get there."in 1978. Barbaro thus joins the ill-fated ranks of Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Swale (1984), Alysheba (1987), Hansel (1991), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), Point Given (2001), War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004) and Afleet Alex last year as horses that through injury or fate have failed to capture the Triple Crown.

The final leg of the series, the Belmont Stakes, takes place June 10. Who will win it? Who cares?

The racing world is in mourning.

THE HOMESTRETCH

”¡ The California Horse Racing Board has mandated that major in-state tracks have Polytrack surfaces installed by the end of next year if they expect to receive race dates. While the majority of horsemen are in favor of the synthetic surface that is safer for horses to race over, some are on hold.

"I don’t have an opinion for or against Polytrack, because I don’t know enough about it, and I don’t think anybody else does," said 59-year-old Darrell Vienna, one of racing’s most erudite trainers, who holds a psychology degree from UCLA and a law degree at Loyola Law School.

"I think we need to know more," Vienna continued. "I’m glad that someone realizes we need to change things. I don’t believe California is the only place that needs change, and maybe Polytrack is the solution, but I haven’t seen enough data, nor has anyone I’ve spoken to. I think everybody wants to experiment towards having a better track, but I don’t want to be a guinea pig. Let someone else be the guinea pig."

”¡ Richie Silverstein, agent for Martin Pedroza, on the impact sensational apprentice Martin Garcia will have now that he’s abandoned the Bay Area to become a regular on the Southern California circuit: "It will have a definite trickle-down effect on the journeyman riders and he might help fellow bug riders Juan Ochoa, Saul Arias and William Antongeorgi.

"It will be great for racing that we have a bunch of young guys who ride hard," "Silverstein said. "But, it definitely takes away business for some of the older riders. Garcia will be in the top 10, maybe the top five. Whatever spot he’s in, he’s pushing somebody down to get there."