We stood along the catwalk outside the press box on top of the roof of Pimlico Race Course watching the horses parade down the track toward the starting gate for the 131st running of the Preakness Stakes, anticipating the possibility that Barbaro, winner of the Kentucky Derby, would finally be the horse to deliver a much-needed Triple Crown.
After all, the undefeated horse had won at Churchill Downs by an impressive 6 1/2 lengths — the second-largest margin of victory in Kentucky Derby history. He had a jockey who had called Pimlico his home for years. Edgar Prado was the leading rider at Maryland tracks from 1991 to 1993 and again from 1996 to 1998.
Nothing in the parade before the 118,000 fans at the Baltimore track on that Saturday afternoon on May 20, 2006 indicated that they would be doing anything other than watching the coronation of Barbaro’s second leg of his Triple Crown.
It turned out to be one of the worst days in horse racing history.
The memories of that day, with Saturday’s Preakness Stakes featuring Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist going for the second leg of the Triple Crown, have resurfaced on the 10th anniversary of Barbaro’s ill-fated Pimlico run.
“When [Barbaro] went to the gate, he was feeling super and I felt like he was in the best condition for this race,” Prado said that day after the race. “He actually tried to buck me off a couple of times. He was feeling that good. He just touched the front of the doors of the gate and went right through it.”
Reporters covering the race are assigned places to stand along the catwalk outside the press box — a good view of the start, and the finish, of the race. So, like the crowd in the grandstand, the air went out of many of us as we saw Barbaro, about 100 yards after the race started, pull up lame as the other horses passed him by.
All eyes were on the injured horse and Prado, who was trying to keep Barbaro from doing further damage to himself.
“During the race, he took a bad step, and I can’t really tell you what happened,” he said. “I heard a noise about 100 yards into the race and pulled him right up.”
Well, maybe not all eyes. One reporter along the catwalk watching the pre-race parade was impressed enough by the size of one horse to run back inside and get a bet down on him before the race began.
That horse, Bernardini, won by 5 1/2 lengths. No one, though, save for Bernardini’s owner, trainer and jockey that day — and the reporter who cashed a big ticket — remembers that.
It took some time for Prado to explain what went wrong. He was an emotional wreck after the race, and it wasn’t just because of the tragedy of a great horse fighting for his life.
It was because Prado’s dream race had turned into a nightmare.
Prado loved Maryland racing. It was where, coming from Peru, he made a name for himself in the industry and became a nationally celebrated jockey.
“To a lot of people, the Kentucky Derby is the most important race and — don’t get me wrong — it is very exciting,” Prado said. “But to me, if I would win the Preakness, that would be more exciting because of the great memories I have of racing in Maryland, and it would help show my gratitude to the people that helped me out there and supported me when I was riding there for so many years. It would be very special. That was where my career started to rise, in Maryland.”
His efforts to get Barbaro, who sustained three fractures in his right hind leg, under control did allow the horse to survive for seven months. The story that day traveled from Pimlico up Interstate 95 to Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, 40 miles south of Philadelphia, to the George B. Widener Hospital for Large Animals. Television crews in helicopters followed the police-escorted horse ambulance up the highway, and the Barbaro watch consumed the news cycle for days.
Barbaro was euthanized on Jan. 29, 2007. His remains are buried at Churchill Downs, with a bronze statue of the horse on top of them.
Prado, 48, has been riding in Florida for the past several years, but just recently made his return to Maryland and has been riding at Pimlico. He’ll be there Saturday — but not with a mount in the Preakness Stakes.
That is a race he has yet to win.
Prado told Fox Sports, “I think it’s something that’s going to stay with me forever.”
Anyone who was at Pimlico that day could say the same thing.
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