Friends of Barbaro
By Amy Wilson of the Lexington Herald-Leader
Barbaro’s cremains returned to the site of his greatest victory sometime in April without the fanfare his public might have expected. They were placed in the ground reverentially but quickly cemented in place under the better than life-sized statue that will be unveiled Sunday morning at Churchill Downs.
Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who owned him, will be there. As will Mike Matz, his trainer; Dean Richardson, the doctor who saved his life for as long as he could; and Edgar Prado, the jockey who did the same, but in a different way.
Also on hand will be at least 200 members of a nationwide community who found each other on a Web site that was never meant to bring them together but did. Not only did it rally those concerned about his welfare while he was alive, it has endured for three years, long beyond his attempt at recovery, his death and any meaningful period of mourning in the aftermath.
The Fans of Barbaro will be easy to spot. They’ll be dressed in Lael Stable colors — blue and lime green. They’ll be wearing ribbons for those members who were not able to attend. And they’ll be the ones most inconsolable. For their devotion to the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner is unlike that for any other racehorse.
It has driven them to write bedtime stories for him while alive and poems to him in death. It drove 600 of them to show up for a birthday party for him at Delaware Park, where he won his first race. It has also driven them to rescue 2,900 horses from slaughter and raise more than $1 million for horse rescue. It has made them a player in anti-slaughter legislation in every state.
It has driven them to post messages at the rate of 1,200 to 1,500 a day (it rises to 2,000 daily during Triple Crown season), now passing the 1 million mark, on their Web site, alexbrownracing.com.
And it has driven them to do silly things like ship a Beanie Baby Barbaro thousands of miles around the country to be photographed at important Barbaro landmarks — he came to Midway to meet Dynaformer, Barbaro’s sire at Three Chimneys Farm and was snapped with the mighty stallion — and to arrange a mock marriage between Barbaro’s parents.
It may be hard for the outsider to understand what drives that. Or what drives 5,000 others to keep such faith.
Whatever it is, it has driven them closer in the years since the beautiful bay took the Derby by 6½ lengths. And it held them there.
An Internet connection
It all started when an exercise rider named Alex Brown put up a Web site in 2004 for his boss, Tim Woolley Racing. Nobody cared. But Brown was fascinated by the power of Internet marketing and had some ideas he wanted to try. Barbaro’s Derby win was the perfect opportunity. Brown posted a few things about the horse’s hopeful run-up to the Preakness and he got some traffic.
Then Barbaro fractured three bones in and around the ankle of his right hind leg as he tore out of the gate.
“I wasn’t going to exploit this,” says Brown. His experiment was dead, he figured.
But the Jacksons shipped the horse back to Pennsylvania to a facility very near Fair Hill Farm where Brown was working. Brown had done some occasional work with Michael Matz, Barbaro’s trainer, and he knew the people who were working with the horse now. He knew he could provide updates on the status of the health of the horse to the world.
The Internet was proving its unique ability to find an audience that wanted to be found.
Waiting for every one of Brown’s morning and evening updates was Harriette Gill in Lexington. As a native Kentuckian, she always watched the Derby, but it was just tradition and good eats until 2006, she says, when she happened to see Barbaro on the television.
“He took my breath away,” she says. “The minute I saw him, I was hooked. I had never been affected by anything like that ever. He spoke to my soul through that TV.”
On the day of the Preakness, she confesses to a bad feeling. When Barbaro pulled up, she prayed, “Please let this horse live.”
She went to her computer as a last resort, frantic, hoping to hear word, to find somebody who could talk her down from her panic. She found Brown’s Web site.
Once Gill began posting comments, it became her job to write the motivational and inspirational words for the group each morning. It was a sort of morning devotional, using her Native American heritage sometimes as a basis for connecting to the natural world.
A discussion group of the Fans of Barbaro got into the habit of waiting each night until a member would “tuck Barbaro in” with a special bedtime story she would write. Then all the FOBs online could go to bed.
In the morning, they would wait by their computers for Brown to post.
“We all waited for three words,” says Gill. “Another comfortable night. That was the best news.”
In this way, the group of fans became family, she says.
The morning he died, Gill had the bad feeling she had had on the day of the Preakness. So before she heard word of his death, Gill wrote a short story that she knew would help others accept his passing. It was, she believes, a story sent from a higher power.
This is when she had to make sense of the obsession.
“I kept asking my husband and he didn’t know. I prayed to God. Why. What is my role supposed to be in this?”
Roy and Gretchen Jackson figured it out pretty quickly, says Alex Brown. They understood the power of a group of committed people to get something done. They had previously stated they wanted Barbaro’s legacy to be about helping other horses. Gretchen Jackson, in particular, suggested to the Fans of Barbaro that horse welfare issues were in need of advocates.
Marcia Doran watched the Web site from the day Barbaro broke down, but she didn’t post for the longest time. Not until Gretchen Jackson spoke up.
“What’s been great,” says Doran, “is that most of us had never given a single thought about horse rescue and now a lot of us are active in the movement.”
The FOBs had to learn about the harsh reality of horse slaughter, the complexities of horse rescue, including how to go to horse auctions, how to negotiate with dealers, how to write to legislators, how to talk to veterinarians.
Fans of Barbaro includes — and here Doran cannot help but laugh — “Republicans, New Age healers, radical lesbians, devout Christians, classical musicians and those who just graduated fifth grade.” The group is 90 percent women, most of them over 50. Some own horses; some have never touched one.
The welfare of racehorses
Caroline Betts is an associate professor of macroeconomics at the University of Southern California. She did not become a Fan of Barbaro until 2007, after his injury and death. She went to the Web site to discuss horse slaughter and to connect to those doing the work of horse rescue. It led her to found her own Thoroughbred rescue organization (www.sctbrescue.org).
Betts grew up near Epsom in England and was a Derby fan — an Epsom Derby fan — since she was 4. She has been worried about racehorse welfare issues a long time before Dynaformer laid eyes on La Ville Rouge. She credits the FOBs with helping her “tremendously with moral and financial support” and with Brown for convincing the Jockey Club to make their tattoo database available online for easier identification when she and groups like hers are trying to buy Thoroughbreds at weekend auction.
The FOB Web site (alexbrownracing.com) is like a ready-made resource, she says, from which she can mobilize help when lobbying is taking place, when kill auctions are being conducted, and when money, hay or emotional support are in short supply.
She is particularly concerned about racehorse welfare issues. And she understands that Alex Brown is employed by the racing industry.
“I have never been asked not to speak my opinions there,” she says. “But I also respect his opinions. I am a real racing fan but I am concerned about what the public isn’t seeing.”
She believes that the real grace of the FOBs is that they have been willing to see that, too. She knows they were entranced by the magnificence of this special horse but they have looked at him and seen every horse he represents as worth their time and attention and love as well.
“I personally know people,” says Harriette Gill, “who are not eating lunch because they’re giving their lunch money to rescue horses.”
Below are videos of Nicanor, one of Barbaro’s full brothers originally published in April 2007 and April 2008.