by Greg Melikov - 05/22/2006
Six times since 1997 a horse has won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, boosting expectations that a Triple Crown winner would emerge for the 12th time in history.
Six times in June racing fans were denied the crowning achievement for 3-year-olds and were forced to utter that old Brooklyn Dodger expression: Wait till next year.
Next year is here, but the racing world must again take up the cry: Wait till 2007. This time the reason is much sadder, underlining the tragic side of the Triple Crown: career-ending injuries.
It has happened too often during the last eight years beginning with Charismatic who gave it his all, breaking down after passing the finish line a tiring third 1 ½ lengths behind Lemon Drop Kid. That was the horse's last race, but because of quick thinking by the jockey, his life was saved.
Chris Antley noticed something was wrong and pulled Charismatic to a stop, jumped off and fell to the ground. He scrambled to his feet holding the reins and picked up the colt's left front leg so the animal couldn't put weight on it.
Veterinarians throughout the country agreed that Antley's selfless, heroic deed prevented further serious injury. The National Thoroughbred Racing Associated called it "Racing's Moment of '99." Charismatic won two Eclipse Awards: Horse of the Year and outstanding 3-year-old. Today he stands at stud in Lexington.
Edgar Prado, aboard Barbaro on May 6 when the son of Dynaformer captured the 132nd Kentucky, deserves the same credit. Prado had the presence of mind to pull up Barbaro when he began favoring his right hind lead and hopped off as the Preakness field headed to the first turn on Saturday.
The colt underwent a six-hour operation on Sunday to repair fractures to his cannon bone, sesamoids and long pastern, broken into more than 20 pieces. His fetlock joint also was dislocated.
Barbaro had 23 screws and a locking compression plate implanted into his leg. He was fitted with a special cast that allows him to bear weight on every limb. It extends from just below the hock and encloses the hoof.
Dr. Dean Richardson, who led the six-person team that performed the surgery at the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, told the media he rarely works on such severe injuries because the horse invariably would be euthanized at the track.
"It's very unusual to have three catastrophic injuries all together," he said. "I've never seen this exact fracture and I never tackled one before. To be brutally honest, there's still enough chance for things going bad that he's still a coin toss, even after every thing went well,"
His most pressing concerns are whether infection will set in and if Barbaro will develop laminitis. The horse, resting comfortably, will wear the cast for about "a week to 10 days," then be re-evaluated.
In the '70s, there were three Triple Crown champions: Affirmed, '78, who defeated Alydar three times in five weeks; Seattle Slew, '77, only unbeaten horse to win all three races; and Secretariat, '73, who still holds the best times for the Kentucky Derby and Belmont.
The Belmont has proved the biggest stumbling block to glory during the past decade since Touch Gold edged Silver Charm by three-quarters of a length in '97. Real Quiet the next year lost by a nose to Victory Gallop. In '00, Fusaichi Pegasus finished second to Red Bullet in the Preakness, but had to skip the Belmont because of an injured hoof.
War Emblem stumbled at the start of the 1 ½-mile test in '02 never recovered and finished off the board. In '03, Funny Cide battled valiantly, but couldn't hold off Empire Maker and finished third nine lengths behind.
The last undefeated horse to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness was Smarty Jones in '04, but he lost by a length to Birdstone in the Belmont.
Afleet Alex, winner of last year's Preakness, was retired two months after a hairline condylar fracture of the left front cannon bone suffered in his Belmont victory didn't heal properly.
The only horse that failed to survive a Triple Crown injury in the last quarter-century was '93 Preakness winner Prairie Bayou, who broke in the Belmont and was euthanized.
The first Triple Crown winner I saw race was during the summer of '48 when Citation whipped 20 older horses in the Stars and Stripes Handicap at old Arlington Park. I was 13, became a racing fan and Citation remains my favorite thoroughbred.