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Monday, July 15, 2024

Broken bones, broken heart

On Saturday afternoon, my heart broke in more places than Barbaro's right hind ankle. Many more places.

On Saturday afternoon, my heart broke in more places than Barbaro’s right hind ankle. Many more places.

He, I hoped, was the colt who would revolutionize man’s treatment of fellow equines in training for careers on the track. He would thrive under humane conditions and lead other track trainers to follow his trainer’s example. Then fate stepped in, proving life is not just unfair, but meticulously unfair.

Barbaro, the colt who won the Kentucky Derby, broke three right-hind-leg bones in two places above and below his ankle at last weekend’s Preakness race. Barbaro was not just an athletic superhero or a rock star (having won the Kentucky Derby by a longer lead than any other thoroughbred since 1946), but a champion for his kind.

Full disclosure: I’m an equestrian, a horse lover. I have my own little collection; four geldings, three of whom are either purebred thoroughbreds or thoroughbred crosses. I fell in love with the unusual training regimen that trainer Michael Matz devised for Barbaro _ one few horses are lucky enough to enjoy. If Barbaro had won the Triple Crown rather than just the first leg, he could have been Stallion Number One in a long parade of horses “allowed to be horses” while in training.

I’m not saying that all or even most thoroughbreds suffer mistreatment while in track training. I don’t know the percentages, and neither does anyone else. Such data are not required to be kept. Neither am I saying that thoroughbreds are treated worse than other breeds participating in other disciplines. Lord knows some disciplines are legendary in the equestrian sphere for horrible cruelties to animals in training. A pox on all cruel owners and trainers!

But Matz set up Barbaro’s pre-Triple Crown regimen so that the horse’s needs (not financial considerations) came first. The New York Times reported before the Preakness accident, “While most trainers organize training to maximize fitness and build race readiness, Mr. Matz has given Barbaro an unusual amount of rest between races in his budding career. Trainers usually prefer to have their horses experienced in having dirt kicked in their face, maneuvering through crowded fields and reacting to adversity before they run in the Triple Crown races, beyond being in shape.” Not to mention, winning as much money for their owners and trainers as possible.

Instead, Matz started the horse later than many horses are started (to allow his bones to fully form and his body to strengthen) and gave him ample rest between races. The Times continued, “To keep his horses happy, Mr. Matz has based his stable in Elkton, Md., at the Fair Hill Training Center, which is a sort of equine spa with Fifth Avenue amenities.”

One of those “amenities” is grass turnout. It shouldn’t be considered an “amenity,” but sadly, it is. It’s what nature demands horses get and, in turn, what they thrive on. But many thoroughbreds in training are kept in stalls day and night on a diet of sweet feed and hay, allowed only to burst onto the track for a short time each day while being exercised. The human equivalent would be pumping up a young child with chocolate, restraining him in bed for 23 hours per day. And permitting him out of bed for a short time so he’d explode with an unnatural fury while exercising.

The sole consideration on the track is the owner’s winnings. Horses are too often treated like moneymaking machines that outlive their usefulness when they stop hemorrhaging cash.

Even after he was injured, Barbaro’s treatment serves as what one hopes might be an example to others. Dr. Dean Richardson, chief of surgery at the New Bolton Center where Barbaro underwent surgery, told the Times, “You do not see this severe injury frequently because, the fact is, most horses that suffer this typically are put down on the racetrack.”

Barbaro is privileged to have expensive surgery and a long recovery largely due to the fees he’ll command as a stud. But such treatment should be afforded to all horses who give their hearts to their human-imposed jobs and ask nothing in return.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)