Hopes and dreams shattered as America watched

May 23, 2006 3:51 AM

The all-seeing eye of television turned its glare on the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown last Saturday, and revealed — for the fourth time — a disaster.

With millions looking on worldwide, racing suffered a staggering blow when Barbaro broke down in the Preakness, ruining for many the spectacle of one of the sport’s greatest days.

Racing has been battered by bad luck on television for the last 30 years, starting with the great filly Ruffian’s broken leg in her match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure in July of 1975, a dream race — champion filly against champion colt — that turned into a nightmare.

Then, 15 years later, on a beautiful October fall day, more stark horror as the filly Go for Wand snapped her right ankle a sixteenth of a mile from the wire in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in her battle with the Argentine filly champion Bayakoa, with cameras focused on the fatal gruesome injury.

Another 9 years and another sheer disaster, as Charismatic broke down in the 1999 Belmont Stakes, with jockey Chris Antley — later a suicide — jumping off and saving the colt by holding the injured leg until help arrived.

Saturday, a replay, this time with Barbaro.

As in those terrifying accidents, the nation’s racegoers — and hundreds of thousands with only casual interest in the sport — grieved at the site of championship caliber horses suffering devastating injuries.

Lesser horses suffer them regularly, but fortunately not on network television. Their disasters, and in many cases destruction, is seen only by those watching at the track or on simulcasting screens nationwide, and fortunately the cameras covering those events do not have to focus on the news aspects of the breakdowns.

They are, however, no less shattering to the owners, trainers and riders and drivers than to those fortunate enough to own Triple Crown caliber horses. And certainly no less shattering to the horses.

Dr. Dean Richardson, the chief of surgery at the famed New Bolton Center of the University of Pennsylvania who operated on Barbaro, announced after more than six hours of what he called "very difficult" surgery, that the colt "was resting comfortably," and the racing public heaved a sigh of relief.

Dr. Richardson knew better, and said, "I’ve been doing this too long to think that day one is the end. No one’s going to want to hear this, but to be honest, there’s enough of a chance of things going wrong that it’s still a coin toss."

I knew it better too.

In 1972, three years before Ruffian died, I owned the best young harness racing stallion in Illinois. He had been hit by a car as a yearling after he jumped a fence, and was saved at New Bolton. He could run in a field, but limped badly when he walked, and in one of the great blunders of my racing career I decided, against the strong opposition of my partner, who owned the farm, to send him back to New Bolton to have the operation that was part of Barbaro’s surgery last Sunday: fusion of the fetlock, or ankle.

The operation was a success, but the patient died. Infection set in, which is exactly what Dr. Richardson was referring to in his statement Sunday.

The irony of the Preakness is that racing not only lost a potentially great runner, but it lost what probably would have been a truly classic race.

The winner, after Barbaro’s bad step and triple fracture, was Bernardini, a royally bred colt whose sire, A.P. Indy, won the Belmont Stakes in 1992 and was the sport’s leading sire of major stakes winners last year.

Bernardini was making only the fourth start of his life, and he won the Preakness by five and a quarter lengths. He is likely to win the Belmont Stakes the same way.

We won’t have a Triple Crown winner again this year — the28th year since Affirmed pulled it off in 1978 — but we may have another superstar for racing.

Barbaro will not be forgotten, now or in the future, but Bernardini may be remembered longer. This colt looks like the best of racing’s 3-year-olds, as his father was, and racing’s luck has turned. It has another brilliant colt on hand to take the place of the one that was never beaten in six outings until disaster brought him down.