A Brush with Barbaro: How Students Uplifted a Racing Icon

Photo courtesy of Anne Phinney

For two college summers I had the great fortune of working for Olympic show jumper rider and consummate horseman, Michael Matz. At the time I was attending Cornell University but returned home to Philadelphia so that I could spend my vacation immersed in all aspects of his world class show jumper sport horses. My experience at the iconic Erdenheim Farm working for this top athlete is chronicled in my first book and remains at the apex of my career with horses. Caring for finely trained and conditioned equines provided me with tried and true skills that I still employ today while caring for my own horses. 

Over the years since those two memorable summers, I have followed Michael’s achievements and news making events. Among the most memorable are several Olympic games and a horrific plane crash. From the latter he emerged a hero, having comforted three children while delivering them to safety. As a school teacher, I have often shared my previous work experience with my students who were fascinated to learn about Michael Matz’s Olympic endeavors. The Olympic dream dances in the heads of many youngsters.   

Early in the spring of 2006, I learned that Michael, who had retired from show jumping to train racehorses full-time, was training a horse who had qualified for the Kentucky Derby. Barbaro became the six to one favorite to win during the week that led up to the first Saturday in May, otherwise known as Derby Day. During that week, the media was abuzz with snippets about Michael’s horse. Everywhere, from the Nightly News to the Internet, Barbaro was expected to win the Derby and possibly achieve winning the Triple Crown. Doing so would be the first time after a twenty-eight year drought. As a result of his public presence, Barbaro became an effective teacher in my classroom. Lessons in anatomy, physiology and the math behind racing probability filled our week in anticipation for the big event.  

Photo courtesy of Anne Phinney

After Barbaro’s incredible win in the Kentucky Derby, my sixth grade students felt even more connected with this special bay horse. They kept daily tabs on him, learning about all the people involved in the horse’s life. Owners, trainers, exercise riders, and jockeys, collectively referred to as connections, go to intricate measures to keep racehorse athletes in prime condition, but content at the same time. Videos that documented the stallion frolicing in his grassy paddock, kicking up his heels and rolling on the ground bore evidence of a pampered life. Two weeks after the Derby, Barbaro, the odds on favorite to win, was headed to the Preakness, the second jewel of the Triple Crown, that is run at Maryland’s Pimlico Race Course.

Of course Barbaro never finished that race. His career came to a snapping halt shortly after the gate released the field of horses. Before the official beginning of the race, Barbaro lurched out of the gate unexpectedly. The false start elevated concern in the millions of fans watching that day, but mostly in his connections: trainer Michael Matz, jockey Edgar Prado and the horse’s owners Gretchen and Roy Jackson. After a quick veterinary inspection, Barbaro was deemed fit to re-enter the starting gate. Shortly after the official start, it became apparent that jockey Edgar Prado realized that something was wrong with Barbaro’s gait; in response, he desperately pulled the horse up to stop him, a next- to- impossible feat considering that the rest of the horses were surging away at top thoroughbred speed. Although Barbaro was still galloping, his right hind leg swung grotesquely behind him. He soldiered on, however, because instinct reminds horses to stay with the herd. Yet, Prado’s one-hundred-fifteen pound body somehow restrained Barbaro from galloping down the track on three legs. Gradually the great horse slowed, then stopped. Until a veterinary ambulance arrived on the scene, spectators and television viewers didn’t realize what was happening and could only stare in horror at Barbaro’s right hind limb swinging behind him. 

Photo © Jill / Blue Moonbeam Studio via flickr

Devastating diagnosis, blame and speculation about whether or not the horse should be saved filled newscasts while the public waited anxiously for updates. On Monday morning after the Preakness, many of my sixth grade students greeted me at the classroom door with expressions of despair. They needed to know what happened to a horse with whom they felt such a connection. What had gone wrong? How bad was his injury? Would Barbaro ever race again? Many of these questions had no definitive answers; and frankly, I was at a loss to explain any part of it except for the scientific facts. 

“Barbaro’s leg was shattered in several places. Surgery was performed and he is still alive, but no, he will never race again. He has a long recovery ahead of him,” was all I could offer.

As the students expressed their feelings in class, an idea began to take shape in my head. As a group we decided to create a student illustrated picture book of Barbaro’s first three years of life. The class brainstormed a storyboard, selecting the events that led him to his big win at the Kentucky Derby and on to the Preakness. Each student then selected an episode that he/she wished to illustrate and contribute to the overall story. By the afternoon most of the class was engaged in the project. We were feeling much better as the sequence of the pages sprang forth into the incredible story of Barbaro’s short life so far.  

While the book was taking shape, the class and I decided to send it to Michael Matz as an expression of our get well wishes for Barbaro and his trainer during that uncertain and difficult time. The students took comfort in their efforts as we packaged the book and sent it on its way. They were quite aware that Barbaro and his connections were receiving thousands of well wishes in all forms of communication, including emails, pictures, carrots, apples and cards. We didn’t expect a response. The students were content with the fact that they had expressed themselves in their book. The news was out of their control, and watching it only promoted feelings of helplessness. Reaching out to Barbaro offered the students hope. Lessons in empathy, compassion and consideration for others returned to my classroom via the teaching efforts of a broken horse.

Photo courtesy of Anne Phinney

About two weeks after we sent the Barbaro book, I received a phone call from Gretchen Jackson, Barbaro’s owner. This gracious woman called to express her deepest appreciation for the book and the students’ illustrations. She was deeply touched by all of the pictures and the research that went into such an accurate account of the horse’s first three years. Mrs. Jackson wanted the students to know that Barbaro was pain free and that as long as he remained that way, she would continue to provide all that was possible to bring him through the injury. He was a model patient who seemed to understand that humans were helping him and therefore, did not protest their care. Barbaro’s owner and her family were overwhelmed by the outpouring from so many people who wished the very best for the horse’s full recovery.  

The sixth grade students were delighted to receive Mrs. Jackson’s message. They were uplifted, knowing that their book had offered comfort during a difficult challenge. At that time neither my students nor I could predict that our involvement in Barbaro’s tragedy was not yet over.

Over the summer months, Barbaro continued to recover, despite solvable setbacks along the way. Media reports kept the world updated on his progress and over the periods of no news is good news, it appeared that the courageous horse was winning the battle.

In August, several friends and I attended a benefit for the Barbaro Fund. The fundraiser was a benefit for the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School’s Large Animal Facility at New Bolton where Barbaro was recovering. The event was held at Saratoga Race Course, a two hour drive from my home. The Fund was set up to promote research on laminitis, a crippling condition that plagues horses who can’t withstand even weight on all four hooves. Although Barbaro’s fractures were healing well, he had continued to suffer from the debilitating condition in his good feet, now compromised by disproportionately supporting his weight. 

Aside from the fundraiser being a lovely trackside event, it enabled me to meet Gretchen and Roy Jackson along with Dr. Dean Richardson, the surgeon responsible for Barbaro’s remarkable recovery. I was also able to visit with Michael Matz, the genius horseman I had worked with so many years ago. My friend Michele took over one hundred pictures that day, documenting a truly incredible day in my life.  

Barbaro’s recovery stretched into the fall. Eventually his fans were treated to video footage of the horse taking his first steps outside to feel the sunshine on his back and to nibble grass. The images inspired us to hope that the Kentucky Derby winner was going to make it after all.  

Then in late January, word was broadcast that Barbaro had been euthanized. The efforts to relieve his pain from laminitis were losing their effectiveness. As promised by Mrs. Jackson in her phone call eight month earlier, they would not extend Barbaro’s suffering once he indicated that he was in pain. I applaud their decision although I am certain it was difficult to make.  

Prior to the euthanasia, I had submitted an article to Practical Horseman Magazine about the involvement of my sixth grade students at the time of Barbaro’s injury. Immediately after the horse was put down, they decided to run the story in the April issue. The next two weeks demanded frenzied editing to get the article shaped for publication. On top of my full-time job, there were horses to care for on either side of my professional day. I pulled it off and completed the article on time. It included quotes from many of my students. At that point I thought I had breathed my last breath into the Barbaro episode. However, more was on the way.

In the spring of 2007, my school was actively in search of a new principal, a long process. An interim was hired to carry out vital administrative duties. Mrs. Rivett, a retired administrator, had not been in charge for long when she received a confusing phone call. Since she did not know me or anything about my association with animals, least of all horses, it took her a day or two to find me. Through persistence and guidance from my colleagues, she finally delivered a prophetic message.  

“A woman from HBO called me last week, looking for the teacher who knows a horse,” read Mrs. Rivett from a small note in her hand. As she delivered the message, her eyes darted above her glasses, hopeful for a sign of comprehension on my face.

I stared blankly waiting for more.

“Ok…the woman who called said she was looking for the school that had students who wrote about a horse.” Again her eyes pleaded with me to understand. “Is this the school? They were sixth graders who wrote about some horse.”

My mind sprang into recognition. “Yes, my sixth graders wrote about the Kentucky Derby winner who broke his leg. Is that what you mean?”

The relief on Mrs. Rivett’s face was evident as she handed me the telephone number that ultimately cast my students in an HBO Sports documentary about Barbaro. 

Photo courtesy of Anne Phinney

Immediately, life got interesting. Once again Barbaro returned to my classroom. The school administration went out of its way to make this happen for our students. They arranged for and paid to ship my photo copy of the book overnight to the production office for review. The class was now in seventh grade. They had to return to my classroom and act like sixth graders working on their book. Meanwhile, my present sixth graders had to move out and be kept on task by a substitute teacher. The plans were mind boggling. Lighting, sound and camera equipment crowded the classroom and spilled out into the hallway. The young cast members sat at desks recreating their pictures for over three hours. Several students were selected to recite the text that accompanied the illustrations. Newspapers from Utica arrived to report on the event. I was interviewed on a local radio station the next morning to share our filming experience on the air. If this wasn’t enough of a thrill, the administration granted me a day off to travel with Rod to New York City for the documentary premiere.  

After arriving by train in Manhattan, we spent the evening rubbing elbows with elite players of the racing and sports writer industries over cocktails and dinner. Actor Tony Serico from the television show The Sopranos attended as an avid racehorse enthusiast. When we took our seats in the movie screening room, I was not prepared for emotions I felt. As Barbaro’s story unfolded larger than life and in living color, my heart swelled with pride. Halfway through the film, my students appeared on the screen. Listening to their voices and watching their illustrations sprout on paper brought tears to my eyes.

The HBO Sports CEO sent me home with a copy of the documentary on CD. A week later the program aired on HBO and the day after, we celebrated at school with a private screening to which students and their parents were invited. Considering the general impression that the film industry is cold and calculating, I was most impressed to notice that this production team made certain that every child appeared in the scene. With the documentary completed, our magical moment in the history of Barbaro’s life came to a close. Today, those students are beyond college age, living in various areas around the country. I hope that the memories of this special horse who joined our class over a decade ago include inspiring lessons that stuck with them. They certainly have for me. 

Anne Phinney is a retired school teacher, retired riding instructor and author who shares her life with horses, llamas, donkeys, goats, dogs, geese, chickens, tortoises, and a pig! She and her husband own Moose River Farm in the Adirondacks.

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