It's hard to believe it's been 10 years. Where does the time go?
The calendar does not lie. It was a decade ago that Barbaro thrilled us by winning the Kentucky Derby, then two weeks later gave us one of the worst images in sports after his right rear leg gave out in the Preakness.Tomorrow I will no doubt sit in front of the TV and watch the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown. The truth is I'm not that much of a horse-racing fan. I do it in homage to my father.Yes, he loved the ponies, and was not above making a wager or two on the nags.How much did dad love horse racing, and all the characters that surround the sport? He is the only man I've ever known who took a vacation in the summer so he could work the pari-mutuel window at Delaware Park.I wrote this column 10 years ago, after Barbaro broke down, but before he was put down.Yes, I know it is Mother's Day Weekend, but this one is for you, dad.* * * They are one of the great anomalies of sport, huge, powerful beasts capable of extraordinary bursts of speed and endurance. Yet these four-legged locomotives do so on tiny, nimble appendages, little more than matchsticks supporting their huge, muscular frames. They are truly miracles. Unfortunately, sometimes even miracles don't have happy endings. I have a special place in my heart for horses. It is one of the few links I have with my father, a man who could not fathom a day without the Racing Form. In the "Sport of Kings," my father was a commoner. Simply put, he loved the ponies. And the racetrack. And those who populate them. He wasn't much of a betting man himself, but that didn't stop a steady stream of gentlemen from visiting our house, especially on a Saturday morning, to find out who my dad "liked" that day. How much did my father enjoy the track? He's the only man I ever knew who took a summer vacation so he could work the pari-mutuel window at Delaware Park. I used to love his stories of the characters and the cons that make up the daily ebb and flow of the track. For some reason, I never really embraced my father's affinity for horses, handicapping and racetracks. Except for three weeks a year. This was supposed to be one of them. They will run a race at Belmont Park on Saturday. It is the third leg of the Triple Crown. Teased now for two years by Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex, both of whom had local connections and both of whom came tantalizingly close to capturing horse racing's Holy Grail, this was to be the year of our salvation. That dream ended two weeks ago with a sickening snap seconds after the pack bolted from the gate at the Preakness. Barbaro, another horse with deep local connections, whose owner Roy Jackson was a Delco native, would not capture the Triple Crown. Instead he captured our hearts. My wife is an animal lover in the purest sense. She loves them for their sheer beauty and for the devotion and joy they willingly shower on those of us who walk upright on two legs. She is not a horse-racing fan. But for three Saturdays every year, she indulges me and my fantasies of being a part of the "horsey set." She usually sniffs about how they should not make these majestic animals perform these exhibitions for humans. And she always makes a point to wonder how they can possibly perform such feats on those tiny little legs. A few Saturdays ago we were due for an evening event for which we were running late. Actually, I was the only one running late. I had no intention of missing the Preakness. So I stalled, camped out in front of the TV in the bedroom. My better half never watches these races. I can never get enough of them, including the buildup, the parties and the sheer indulgence of the landed gentry that make up the racing set. Earlier in the afternoon, I had consulted with the news desk here at the paper. I had already decided I wanted to lead the next day's Sunday paper with the result of the race. I envisioned a front page with a picture of Barbaro under the headline "Superhorse." If he lost I suggested we use "Heartbreak" instead. That's what wound up on the front page of the paper, but not for the reason I imagined. Barbaro had blown away the field at the Kentucky Derby. It was the largest winning margin in years. For a newspaper editor, Barbaro made a great story. Just like Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex, he was dripping with local connections. The owner grew up in Delco. His wife worked here. Their farm was in West Grove. Barbaro raced at Delaware Park early in his career. And he was based, along with his trainer, at Fair Hill, Md. Fair Hill is located just a good stone's throw from Oxford, Pa., the town where I grew up. It's just over the state line on the road to Newark, Del. Each year lots us local "townies" donned our khaki pants and blue Oxford shirts and did the Fair Hill races, a steeplechase event that drew heavily on bluebloods from the Main Line. We stuck out like sore thumbs. I think our khakis weren't quite rumpled enough. There was something about these people that made them stand apart from us. They literally looked like money. Years later, as soon as I saw Edgar Prado pulling up his mount, I had a pretty good idea what had happened. The gruesome TV footage soon confirmed it. Suddenly the Triple Crown didn't seem so important. Now the question was whether Barbaro could be saved. I went downstairs and told my wife I was ready. I never mentioned the race, or Barbaro's fate. Before we arrived at our destination, Barbaro was headed back up Route 1, destined for Penn's New Bolton Center. It is world-famous for saving large animals. It was about to become more so. Doctors there not only saved Barbaro's life, but patched up his shattered ankle with a metal plate and no less than 23 metal screws. The eyes of the racing world will zero in on a big race this Saturday. Not mine. I've seen enough. I hope Barbaro continues his miraculous recovery. I will continue to wonder how these marvelous animals can perform these tasks on legs that would make a ballerina envious. They will bestow flowers and a trophy to the winner of the Belmont. But not our hearts. We've already given that away. To the pride of West Grove. And Delaware Park. And Fair Hill. And New Bolton Center. Get well, Barbaro.