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Loved, before he was Barbaro

By BRADY DENNIS
Published January 30, 2007


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Before the glory of his Kentucky Derby win and the tragic breakdown at the Preakness Stakes, before his eight-month ordeal of surgeries and uncertain survival, before the grief of his death on Monday, Barbaro spent much of his youth in Florida.

Not long ago, he was just another inexperienced thoroughbred on a quiet Ocala farm. He was a novice turf racer, an unknown, making the rounds at tracks.

Here, in their own words, are the memories of several Floridians who encountered him along the way:

Ron Nicoletti, track handicapper at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, recalling the Florida Derby on April 1:

"It was a typical Florida day. It was crowded. The excitement was there.

I had him as my top pick. He was the one to beat. The horse himself - he believed he was going to win.

He broke from a post that no one had won from. Post 10. The run to the first turn is very short. If you don't get position right away, it's impossible to win.

He broke with Charming Image. He's a half length off the lead all the way around, tracking the pace set by Sharp Humor.

As they're coming around the far turn, Barbaro moved up to challenge. He made his move.

They turned for home. It was these two bing-bangin' it down to the wire. Barbaro prevailed by a half-length.

It was such a gutsy performance. I was totally in his corner. He made everyone believers.

He was just a gorgeous horse."

* * *

John Stephens, who with his wife, Jill, operates Stephens Thoroughbreds near Ocala. The couple broke and trained Barbaro as a yearling and a 2-year-old:

"It's like coaching Michael Jordan. You have a good student, it makes your life easier.

There's just something about him. He was a very good athlete, a very good-minded horse.

Everything he was asked to do, he did it. He was smart and very talented. Very businesslike.

At the Kentucky Derby, he basically ran against 19 other top-caliber horses and made it look easy. It was an exciting day. It was unbelievable when they hit the stretch.

It captured people's imagination and attention. Like bicycling and Lance Armstrong. People like to see greatness. He did some great things.

He was a class act. I'm glad we were able to have this horse at our farm.

It's a sad thing that happened. My gosh, he couldn't have put up a harder fight. He held on. He was going to battle until the end.

It didn't turn out the way we all wanted. But you have to keep it in perspective. The whole world doesn't stop.

Tomorrow you have to get up and train the other horses and give them the same opportunity."

* * *

Bobby Neuman, track announcer at Calder Race Course, where Barbaro ran the Tropical Park Derby, his first race as a 3-year-old:

"Barbaro won at Calder before he was Barbaro, before everyone knew who he was.

I don't think anyone really had any idea. I just thought it was another really good turf horse. As it turns out, he was at least as good on the main track as he was on the turf.

It was Jan. 1. The first derby of the year. All the 2-year-olds become 3 on Jan. 1

I was in my normal spot, the announcer's booth, six floors up and 20 feet before the finish line.

It was a mile and an eighth on grass. He was a monster that day. He ran a lights-out race. He won going away.

I called his first derby win. I wish I would have known at the time how important calling that race was. I wish I could have made it more special than I did. I don't think the call was as impressive as the race.

You never know what you're looking at out there. You wonder if you're looking at the next Kentucky Derby winner.

He was a pretty special horse. Who knows how good he might have been?

Watching the race means a lot more now. I can always look at the tapes and say, 'I got to call that horse.' "

Brady Dennis can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or dennis@sptimes.com.

[Last modified January 30, 2007, 10:09:59]


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