- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2007

HBO’s promotional hook for its latest “Sports of the 20th Century” documentary could have been, “If you liked Seabiscuit, you’ll love Barbaro.”

There is a unifying theme between “Barbaro,” which premieres Wednesday night on the pay cable network, and the 2003 film adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s fine book “Seabiscuit”: The love and affection between horses and humans.

Seabiscuit’s story is mostly an upbeat saga of how Depression-era America clutched the undersized, overachieving racehorse to its collective heart. But we all know Barbaro finally was euthanized in January of this year, 20 months after the Kentucky Derby champion broke down with an injured right rear leg in the 2005 Preakness Stakes, despite valiant efforts by doctors to save his life.

The unknown is what tantalizes us whenever a superb athlete is forced to end his career early. As racing writer William Nack puts it at the end of HBO’s hour-long program, “We like to think [Barbaro] would have gone on to win the Triple Crown. But we don’t know that. All we can do is speculate. He’s one of those horses who will be in history an eternal memory.”

Good taste and overall excellence define HBO’s “20th Century” series, and the former quality is very much in evidence here. Executive producers Ross Greenburg and Rick Bernstein must have been tempted to show a zillion replays of Barbaro’s breakdown early in the 131st Preakness, but fortunately they resisted. We see it once as jockey Edgar Prado immediately pulls up the horse, and the long battle to save him begins with the commendable work of Pimlico’s veterinary crew. Swiftly these men got Barbaro into an equine ambulance that transported him — with police escort — to a medical facility in New Bolton, Pa.

Despite HBO’s restrained approach, you want to scream, “Don’t go!” as Barbaro is led into the starting gate at Pimlico. When he breaks through the barrier prematurely — “always a bad sign,” Nack calls it — you want to tell owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson and trainer Michael Matz not to let him race. Of course, hindsight is always 20-20.

We see and hear a great deal from the Jacksons, Matz and New Bolton chief of surgery Dean Richardson, and the love all of them share for Barbaro is touching. But from the moment the bone in his leg shattered into pieces at the Preakness, the odds were against his survival — even though, Richardson tells us, the horse behaved extremely well during all the various medical procedures that followed. The intelligence of horses has been debated for centuries, but Barbaro seemed to know what was happening and was grateful for the attempts to repair the damage.

There is great poignancy here, too. After working out Barbaro the morning of the Preakness, Matz says, assistant trainer Peter Brette told him, “It’s gonna take a horse with wings to beat him today.” Or perhaps merely fate.

Amazingly, Barbaro entered (and won) only five races before running away with the Kentucky Derby. Says Gretchen Jackson of the period before the Derby: “I saw a huge rainbow, and I said my son [Barbaro, of course] is truly blessed.” And perhaps before the Preakness two weeks later, a black cloud hovered overhead.

Certainly, Barbaro’s plight and pluck touched millions. As narrator Liev Schreiber explains at the start of this fine documentary: “Animals sometimes can take us to a place we can’t reach ourselves.”

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