Ghost of Barbaro Looms over Derby Week

Barbaro, ridden by jockey Edgar Prado. i i

Barbaro, ridden by jockey Edgar Prado, won the 132nd Kentucky Derby on May 6, 2006. The horse was euthanized in January, eight months suffering a broken hind leg in the Preakness Stakes race. Andy Lyons/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Barbaro, ridden by jockey Edgar Prado.

Barbaro, ridden by jockey Edgar Prado, won the 132nd Kentucky Derby on May 6, 2006. The horse was euthanized in January, eight months suffering a broken hind leg in the Preakness Stakes race.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Saturday's Kentucky Derby begins a new quest for the Triple Crown. But there's a somber tone as racing fans remember Barbaro. The great thoroughbred won the 2006 Derby, but an injury in the Preakness led to his death.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This weekend's Kentucky Derby will include a tribute to last year's champion.

Barbaro was euthanized early this year after a long effort to recover from a broken leg. And this morning, NPR's Tom Goldman reports on the legacy of a much-admired horse.

TOM GOLDMAN: Traditionally, this is the week people spend buzzing about the Kentucky Derby horses - the favorites, the odds, the possible triple crown winners. But last Sunday at least, the horse of the moment still was Barbaro.

At Delaware Park, where he got his start, there was a celebration of what would have been Barbaro's fourth birthday. That same day, TV viewers tuned in anticipating this, an NBC documentary titled "Barbaro: A Nation's Horse."

(Soundbite of documentary "Barbaro: A Nation's Horse")

Unidentified Man #2: Men and women and children across this country cried today when they learned that Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner, had been put to sleep.

GOLDMAN: What viewers got instead was a hockey playoff game that stretched into double overtime, bumping Barbaro. The NBC Sports Web site was inundated with letters like this one from Dana(ph), who wrote, I waited for weeks to watch the Barbaro special. Instead, I saw a stupid, boring hockey game where no one could seem to score. To which hockey fans probably responded, hey, at least our sport doesn't euthanize injured athletes. In fact, the Barbaro ordeal did leave many racing fans disillusioned.

Mr. RAY PAULICK (Editor in Chief, Blood-Horse Magazine): I'm sure that people who consider themselves fans a year ago don't consider themselves fans today. You can't help but lose some people as a result of what happened to Barbaro.

GOLDMAN: Ray Paulick, editor in chief of Blood-Horse magazine, says it's hard to quantify how many people turned away. But he offers this number, 56,810, as an indication that all was not lost. That was the attendance at last month's Santa Anita Derby in Southern California, the biggest crowd there since 1984.

Paulick says it shows that many are not ready to give up on horseracing, especially after the industry acted openly and honestly during Barbaro's highly publicized recovery.

Mr. PAULICK: For an industry that doesn't place a great degree of importance on disclosure, for them to disclose all that they did was a great step forward.

GOLDMAN: Paulick believes the most significant industry reaction to Barbaro is what he calls a huge emphasis on racetrack safety. There's been a trend in recent years to convert dirt tracks to synthetic surfaces. Barbaro's injury ramped up the process.

Have you been getting more calls over the last year?

Professor MICK PETERSON (Mechanical Engineering, University of Maine): Oh, absolutely. And certainly more interest.

GOLDMAN: University of Maine Professor Mick Peterson is one of the top experts on racetrack surfaces. Dirt tracks, he explains, can be dangerously inconsistent for a horse, soft in some places, hard in others. Not so with the synthetic tracks made of waxes and fiber and rubber and sand.

Prof. PETERSON: They have made it so that it is very, very consistent from step r to step.

GOLDMAN: For tracks that have made the switch there have been fewer fatal breakdowns. One of the tracks, Keeneland, is 75 miles away from Churchill Downs. Still, almost all the Kentucky Derby horses have been stabled at Keeneland so they can train on a synthetic track.

Derby officials expect a packed Churchill Downs on Saturday. There should be a big TV audience as well. NBC announced this week it will air that Barbaro documentary after the race and long after the network's hockey broadcast ends.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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