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Barbaro's Legacy

The effort to save the fallen champion shows how far equine medicine has come in recent years. And how far it still has to go

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The trophy rested on a mantel in their family room, beside an oil painting. It was elegant, though small. Roy Jackson easily lifted it down and, in the thin gray light of winter, offered it for closer admiration. Engraved in gold was an event: 132nd Kentucky Derby. A venue: Churchill Downs. A date: May 6, 2006. And: Won By Barbaro.

Roy and his wife, Gretchen, live on 190 acres of Wyeth country in southeastern Pennsylvania, up a sinuous driveway that leads to a house on a knoll. They own sheep, cats, cows and dogs, but mostly they own horses. In more than 30 years, they had never had a superlative racer, never had a horse in a Kentucky Derby nor even been spectators at one until that date etched on the trophy. As Barbaro shifted into an unworldly gear in the far turn that Saturday and began flying as if his 19 competitors had been flash-frozen, Gretchen thought, "Oh my gosh, he really is that good."

Victory meant that he had run six races and had yet to lose. Grass (three wins) or dirt (three), the surface didn't matter. The next jewels of the Triple Crown, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, beckoned. Maybe after that, the Jacksons would take him to England to race, just for fun.

Now their 3-year-old colt was living in a veterinary hospital three miles away. He had been there since bones in his right hind leg blew apart in the opening seconds of the Preakness, May 20, 2006. It is mere coincidence, nothing more, that the Jacksons are neighbors of the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center. They did not buy their farm in 1978 to ensure easy visits to sick horses. It just worked out that way. Each day since the accident, they gathered grass from their fields and drove down a two-lane road to the intensive care unit. The home-picked meals were not an official medical regime. They helped keep the bond intact.

Gretchen, 69, and Roy, 70, have known each other since their high-school days in Philadelphia, and finding a more gracious couple would take a long search. As they sat in the family room on a January morning, fenced fields filled the view through a wall of windows. Another wall held a lithograph of six hounds. No one knows to whom the dogs once belonged, but the image has been in Roy's family a while. Imprinted on the lithograph beneath each hound's face is a name. The one farthest right reads "Barbaro."

"He is always in my heart," Gretchen said of the hound's namesake. But seeing him each day was "really, really difficult." He was almost unfailingly alert and playfully nippy, still magnificent, if thinner than before the accident. But looking at the world through a hospital window was not a Thoroughbred's life.

"My thing is," Gretchen said, "when I walk into this house, I let all the dogs out. I let them all run. I just love...."

She stopped, searching for a word.

Freedom?

"Yes. I love it. It's what they're meant to do. Run. Hunt. I don't worry about them at all. And to see a horse cooped up in a stall, it sort of really bothers me. But what would bother me worse is if we don't give him a shot."

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