By Kevin Modesti
Horse racing, and horses, lift the heart as sure as they break it.
What’s true of all sports, and many sportsmen, is truer of a game in which animal athletes serve people as mute symbols of devotion and destiny, living symbols worth more than their 1,200 pounds in gold.
When the seemingly inevitable news came that Barbaro had lost his fight for life Monday, the jolt was harder for those who watched racehorses grant new life only two days earlier.
I’m thinking of an extraordinary Saturday at the races, the afternoon of a multi-million-dollar event known as the Sunshine Millions, whose unique format matches horses bred in California and Florida on a card split between Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park.
At Gulfstream, a filly named Shaggy Mane, whose old owners showed what they thought of her prospects by letting her go for $12,500 at a Northern California fairground, won a $250,000 race. New life. And this was just an appetite-whetter in a banquet of miracles.
Fifteen minutes later at Santa Anita, a gelding called Smokey Stover won the biggest race of his career and made a winner again of Harry Aleo, an 87-year-old one-time Dodgers minor league pitcher whose time in the spotlight as a horse owner had seemed to end when the national-champion sprinter Lost in the Fog was killed by cancer.
New life. And more to come.
Not a half-hour later at Gulfstream, the old California-bred horse McCann’s Mojave, a 33-1 long shot on the tote board, won the $1 million marquee race of the day, putting $550,000 in the pocket of his owner Mike Willman.
Even in the press box – especially in the press box – it was an emotional scene, because Willman is Santa Anita’s publicity director. When friends rushed to congratulate Willman, they found him in tears in his press-box office, in front of the TV showing his horse.
“I’ve been through a divorce,” Willman said in a surreal press conference in which the emcee also starred. “I’m trying to raise two little boys. My life has been a nightmare since last summer. (The prize money) stabilizes things greatly for me and my boys.”
New life. And still, the day was not over.
Long after the last Sunshine Millions race, in a Santa Anita sprint for horses seeking their first win, a 3-year-old filly going by the name Debie Ginsburg rallied from mid-pack to win her competitive debut in a photo finish at 11-1 odds. Debie Ginsburg was re-named in honor of an admired writer for the California Thoroughbred magazine who died in June at 51. Ginsburg’s family, friends and co-workers led a bittersweet celebration in the winner’s circle.
“Some people believe naming horses for people is bad luck,” Bob Feld, managing partner among the filly’s owners said. “Some people say, `Never change a horse’s name.’ I was defying superstition on two counts.”
Feld got to know Debie the writer when she interviewed him for an article on how owners name their horses. Debie never put the article on paper, always had more urgent work to do, and Feld used to tease her about it. After she died following a short illness, Feld thought this would be a fitting honor, and Debie’s family in Fresno said they’d be delighted.
New life. Every time Debie Ginsburg runs.
“They really feel Debie is still living through the horse,” Feld said from his Monrovia home.
Barbaro is gone now. The Kentucky Derby winner was euthanized Monday morning in Pennsylvania after one last medical setback in the colt’s battle against his Preakness injuries led to discomfort too dramatic to medicate away.
Barbaro’s owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson (he a former president of baseball’s Pacific Coast League), and his chief vet, Dr. Dean Richardson, gave him every chance for these past 254 days to overcome the original fracture and related hoof conditions. But to watch the colt walk on that splinted leg was to know he would never lead the life of the normal retired racing star, let alone stand sturdy enough to contribute the bloodline of the most convincing Kentucky Derby winner in 60 years to the improvement of the breed.
On the first Saturday in May, in front of the second-largest crowd in Churchill Downs history (157,000), Barbaro had kept his record perfect (6 for 6), winning the Derby by 6 lengths (the most since Assault), blowing through the last quarter-mile in 24.34 seconds (the fastest since Secretariat). On top of the objective measures of his potential greatness, Barbaro carried the aura of destiny. His trainer, Michael Matz, had been blessed before, the life-saving hero of the 1989 United Airlines crash in Sioux City, Iowa.
Barbaro’s Triple Crown promise, his veterinarian thinks, begins to account for the national following he achieved as a medical marvel.
“It think the horse was loved because he was a great athlete, and people love greatness,” Richardson said in Kennett Square, Pa. “That and the story of his bravery. Those two things, probably.”
Bob Feld, gladdened by Debie Ginsburg’s victory on that fairy-tale day at the races, was struck by the sport’s emotional swing from Saturday to Monday.
“It was a heroic effort,” Feld said of the attempt to save Barbaro. “This (death) is one of those stark realities of racing. The highs and lows are just incredible.”
Horse racing, and horses, give and take away. Sports’ swiftest circle of life is an oval.