LOUISVILLE, KY. | The life-sized statue sits at the front gate of Churchill Downs, a magnificent bronzed Barbaro in full stride, all four hooves off the ground and heading toward his greatest victory.
Muscular and athletic, its presence provokes quiet reflection of the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner at the peak of his power and of his death, eight months later, following a horrific injury.
Some leave red roses, others snap photos.
Trainer Michael Matz is hoping another 3-year-old colt, Union Rags, can fill the hole in his barn and in his soul.
He sees the same promising signs from Union Rags, who is using the same stall as Barbaro and is the early second choice for Saturday’s 138th Derby.
“They’re both big, good-looking, fast and athletic. Union Rags still has to live up to what Barbaro did,” Matz said.
Matz and owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson all rode a roller coaster of emotion during Barbaro’s eight-month fight that had the public rooting for his survival from the hoof infection that developed after he broke his leg in the opening strides of the Preakness. Just when the colt seemed on the mend, another surgery would be needed and their hopes would sag again.
Late in 2006, the trio won the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic with Round Pond, but their good luck ran out two months later when Barbaro was euthanized.
“He captured a lot of people’s hearts,” Matz said. “He didn’t do much wrong. … Every time we ran him, he won, except the time he got hurt.”