December last I met up with Alex Brown in the Favourites lounge at Woodbine for a farewell pint. The meet was coming to a close and Brown was stepping down from his position as exercise rider for Steve Asmussen and heading back to his home in Maryland to embark on a new, non-horse related, career.
I didn’t believe it for a second.
A short time later Brown was back working horses for Michael Pino at Fair Hill and, more to the point, was working on a book about ill-fated Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro.
Name: Alex Brown
City of Birth: Congleton, UK
Favourite Football Team: Manchester City
Favourite Active Race Horse: Salty Langfuhn
Worst Horse Name: Walter, someone saw it this morning and we both asked: why ?
Website not named ABR that you visit the most: Paulick Report
Barbaro made his first few starts on the turf breaking his maiden on October 4, 2005 at Delaware Park.
A little more than a month later, the Dynaformer colt owned by Roy and Gretchen Jackson won the Laurel Futurity and provided a glimpse of his soon to be undeniable class.
The beautiful bay stretched out to a mile and an eighth in his first race as a three-year-old winning the Tropical Park Derby at Calder. It would be his last race on turf.
“Steve Haskin interviewed Michael Matz, before the Holy Bull,” recalled Brown. “When Haskin asked ‘what was the meaning of Barbaro’, Matz looked at his assistant Peter Brette quizzically who responded without missing a beat, ‘Kentucky Derby winner’.”
It was a telling insight not only into the relationship of Matz and Brette but also of the confidence in their horse who had yet to race on dirt.
With the Derby looming in his future, Barbaro switched over to dirt and romped the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream in the slop. On April 1st, Barbaro would make fools of the field winning the Florida Derby in impressive fashion.
The Florida Derby win rocketed Barbaro near the top of all of the Derby contender lists.
The following preview from Greatness and Goodness: Barbaro and his Legacy details the pre-Derby excitement.
Barbaro had flourished since he arrived in Kentucky from his winter quarters in Florida.
Barbaro literally had everyone mesmerized at Churchill Downs. Steve Haskin, John Asher, Barbara Livingston, Tom Law. These were all veterans of our industry who are not easily impressed. Not until they saw Barbaro for the first time in the flesh.
Barbara Livingston was "thunderstruck", and insisted on telling everyone he was the horse for this Kentucky Derby.
John Asher was "in awe" when he first saw Barbaro out training at Churchill Downs.
Barbaro's pre-Kentucky Derby work-out, the Saturday before the Derby, was a work of legends. Steve Haskin noted how strong he was going around the turn after the work in the gallop out. Barbaro worked a half mile in 46 seconds and change, and then galloped out an additional quarter of a mile. If an ordinary horse had worked as fast as Barbaro did that morning, he would have left the race on the training track. It would simply have been too fast and taken too much out of him.
It was becoming very clear Barbaro was no ordinary horse. As soon as the work was over, Michael Matz's cell phone began ringing in earnest. One clocker, who had clocked every Derby contender for many years, remarked that Barbaro's was the best work he had seen over the last five years.
Jay Privman compared the work to the pre-Derby work of Fusiachi Pegasus in 2000. Fusaichi Pegasus became the first Derby favorite to win the Derby in a number of years.
Peter Brette, who was riding Barbaro in the work, simply noted it felt like he took three strides down the lane after he let Barbaro lengthen his stride. All week Barbaro was the standout in terms of his training leading up to the Derby.
Barbaro did not disappoint in the Derby airing out through the stretch to win at odds of 6-1.
It was the apex of a career that had yet found its limits - and it would all come crashing down two weeks later in a maelstrom of turmoil when Barbaro shattered his leg in the Preakness.
The racing chapter of Barbaro’s career came to a close, but a new chapter was beginning as the horse fought for survival in Maryland.
“I ran a website that provided all the updates of Barbaro's condition while he was at New Bolton Center,” recalled Brown. “Doing this, I created a large community of people following Barbaro. Fans of Barbaro have now become active in many types of horse welfare issues, not least of which is the issue of horse slaughter. I had access to the information surrounding his status because I was working at the same training center that Barbaro trained. I knew all the ‘insiders’ and they trusted me.”
As Barbaro bravely took on treatment to save his shattered leg, Brown’s website was feeding a public thirsty for knowledge of their heroic horse.
In July of 2006, Barbaro developed laminitis in his left rear leg. Following five further operations, Barbaro’s condition varied under the watchful eye of veterinarians at New Bolton Center. While the troubled right hind leg eventually healed, the colt soon developed further laminitis in both front legs. His veterinarians and owners concluded that he could not be saved, and Barbaro was euthanized on January 29, 2007.
Over time, the fans who followed Barbaro became friends and activists working to rescue and retire racehorses as part of a growing community knows as the Fans of Barbaro.
It’s hard to explain the connection so many people felt towards Barbaro but it is something Brown wants to explore.
“Barbaro showed brilliance, he was undefeated, he was cut down in his prime, and then he simply showed a will to live,” stated Brown. “I think that combination got people engaged, and then inspired people to better things. Or at least that is a thesis I am exploring in the book.”
Barbaro’s legacy is two-fold. The champion won every race he finished and fans working in his memory now cast a lasting legacy to Barbaro's fellow breed.
For Brown, it has become important to chronicle the lasting impressions of a horse who helped enrich his life and he soon secured a contract to write his book from Barbaro’s owners - Roy and Gretchen Jackson.
“I talk to the Jackson’s from time-to-time, most recently a couple of days ago,” stated Brown. “I just wanted to update them on my progress. I have not actually sat down to interview them yet, but I plan to at the end of this month. I think it is better to interview them when I have a pretty strong narrative, rather than interview them early in the process.”
There have been several books written about Barbaro, most notably My Guy Barbaro: A Jockey's Journey Through Love, Triumph, and Heartbreak with America's Favorite Horse written by Edgar Prado, Barbaro's Derby-winning jockey, co-written by John Eisenberg.
Brown hopes that his tome will offer a different perspective.
“The title is ‘Greatness and Goodness: Barbaro and His Legacy’. So while much of the book will look at his legacy, which differentiates this book from others written about Barbaro, it is first important to establish his greatness. And I think that will also establish the book as unique among Barbaro books. For instance I am interviewing a lot of people this week to establish his place in history. To try to determine what it was about Barbaro that garnered such a strong following. And the feedback I am getting from my interviewees is very interesting. I hope I do it justice in the book. There is a lot of pressure to get it right I think.”
There has been no shortage of racing personalities willing to offer a perspective on the greatness of Barbaro.
“Steve Haskin said Barbaro's Derby was definitely one of the best five he had seen, and might well have been the best of those five,” said Brown. “That's pretty impressive as Steve's observations date back to 1968. John Asher, of Churchill Downs, said when he first saw Barbaro the day after he arrived when he was on the track he thought, ‘oh my god, it was breathtaking to see him’. In fact I get a lot of feedback from people that it is when they saw Barbaro for the first time, it blows them away. His presence, physical characteristics. And these are people who are not easily impressed, and are used to being around good horses. Barbaro was definitely much more than simply a good horse.”
Racing fans are now becoming excited at the prospect of Barbaro’s brothers Nicanor and Lentenor. You can count Brown among them.
“They can both run, and run fast,” exclaimed Brown. “Lentenor's maiden score on the turf was eerily similar to Barbaro's maiden score I thought. There is plenty of upside for him and it will be very exciting to see where Matz runs him next and if he switches him to dirt for a tilt at the Derby. I thought Nicanor's second race on dirt was impressive and then when they put him on the turf he became a monster. These guys can run!”
While the family connections to Barbaro can offer fans a chance to be nostalgic, Brown is happy to reflect on his own memories of a horse who for a time had caught lightning in a bottle.
“I watched Barbaro work a quarter the Thursday before the Preakness,” said Brown. “Wow, he was just galloping. And he went in 24 and change. I was fortunate to see him train the two weeks leading up to the Preakness pretty much each morning. Those memories were terrific. I then helped out a little bit during the last couple of months he was at New Bolton Center. For instance, I took him out for a pick of grass on Christmas day. It was such a peaceful and hopeful time.”
To learn more about Alex Brown's book please visit the Facebook page, Greatness and Goodness: Barbaro and His Legacy.