AUGUST 14, 2015
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On the first Saturday in May, it is fitting that our thoughts should return to Barbaro, a colt who epitomizes the spirit of the Kentucky Derby. Buried at Churchill Downs, the champion’s final resting place is commemorated by a sculpture that captures Barbaro in full flight, legs above the ground, coming home to win the 132rd running of the Kentucky Derby. It is here, amid the history and the roses, the hats and the horses, that Barbaro runs forever.
As far back in time as the earliest recorded data and artefacts, the Celts worshipped the horse goddess, Epona. Her exact history is somewhat clouded by the invasions of Gauls and Romans, who destroyed everything in their wake. But what is clear is the fact that her essence survived, coming down to the Celts (the Irish, Scots and Welsh) and to the English in their traditional love of the horse. Epona is a goddess of fertility and renewal; it is she who also carries the spirits of the dead into the afterlife. Statues and engravings of Epona have been found in Great Britain, France and Italy, evoking a time when people formed deep, organic attachments to the Earth and to the horse. In the Irish Book of Kells the horse abounds …. images of Epona, she who would protect not only the warrior, but also the crops, livestock and people of Ireland. And certainly the Irish needed protection. Ireland faced cultural extinction a number of times — at the hands of the English most recently — and particularly during these times of threat and danger, it was Epona who represented Irish culture and was a source of hope, belief and endurance. The equine goddess dwelt both upon the Earth and beyond, hence her divine nature.
An early depiction of Epona in bronze, 200-50 BC (IRELAND)
The Folkstone white horse, seen from the air, was made of chalk in the time of the Druids and is associated with Epona
A modern rendering of Epona, a goddess who was thought to transform into a white horse or a female centaur (half-woman, half-horse)
Of course, the Celts were not the only culture to worship the horse, investing them with aspects of the divine. The cultures of Ancient Arabia shared the same sensibility. Here, too, the mighty Arabian as well as the Kipchak, Nogai, Oghuz, Petcheneg, Ferghana, Tekke and Turkoman breeds were thought to be beloved emissaries of the Prophet Mohammed — and were treated as sacred. Raised by herdsmen, broken by herdsmen and then either traded or sold, these horses could count on the herdsman, or “seyiis” who had raised them to remain with them throughout their lives. In fact, it was a horse’s devotion to his seyiis that made him amenable to the warriors or sultans or Princes who would ride him. The seyiis’ role was to take his horse “to meet its destiny,” and in the case of both the Byerly Turk as well as the Darley and Godolphin Arabians, this meant a journey from Arabia to Europe to Great Britain. (Once in Great Britain, the bloodlines of these three great horses produced the thoroughbred. ) In the few rare portraits of the founders of the thoroughbred breed, the mighty stallions are pictured with their seyiis: resplendent in their silk jabots and elaborate turbans, the seyiis’ presence articulates the sacred, mysterious bond between horse, humankind and eternity.
The Byerly Turk, pictured with his seyiis, the man who birthed him, fed and trained him, and accompanied him throughout his life
An Akhal-Tekke horse and his seyiis
George Ford Morris’ beautiful sketch of the Byerly Turk
The Turkman horse of North Khorasan
Barbaro conjured images of the Byerly Turk, together with other ancient breeds like the Akhal-Tekke and the Turkman. An aristocratic-looking individual, Barbaro sported a bay coat that hinted of a reddish sheen, a wide forehead connoting intelligence that bore a distinctive white marking and a deep, dark eye. The face marking was shaped like the speech bubbles that one finds in modern comics, suggesting that Barbaro was on the verge of speaking. Or else, listening to the voices within, to the whispers of a living spirit older than time itself. And his eyes always looked away ….. far,far away …. to a place mere mortals could never perceive.
Barbaro’s deep, dark eyes seemed to look far away to the land of his forefathers. Photo by equine photographer Amber Chaflin; copyright Amber Chaflin. To see a gallery of Amber Chaflin’s photography, please visit her website at http://www.downthestretchphotos.com
Barbaro (2003) was a home bred with a beautiful pedigree: a son of the great sire Dynaformer(1985) out of the Jackson’s mare, La Ville Rouge (1996). Dynaformer needs no introduction. However, it is worth noting that his sire, Roberto (1969), was the product of exaggerated inbreeding — to Nearco (1935), Pharos (1920), Mumtaz Begum (1932), Plucky Liege (1912) and Blue Larkspur (1926). (“Inbreeding” refers to common ancestors in both the sire line and dam’s family within the first 5 generations of a horse’s pedigree.) There is no question that inbreeding is a “fact of life” in the making of the modern thoroughbred, but excessive inbreeding is looked upon with disfavour, since it tends to invite characteristics and limitations that may compromise the ongoing development of the breed. On the other hand, Dynaformer’s dam, Andover Way (1978) was only inbred in her 4th generation (to Hyperion) and the relative openness of her first three generations may have had some effect on diluting an overly strong Roberto influence. Too, Andover Way was a granddaughter of the great Ribot (1952), considered one of a select group of international sires who have exerted a huge influence on the development of the modern thoroughbred.
Barbaro’s sire, Dynaformer, caught in a reflective pose. Photo by Amber Chaflin. Copyright Amber Chaflin.
Ribot, pictured here with the jockey who rode him throughout his racing career, Enrico Camici and his trainer, Ugo Penco, Copyright protected photo.
An historic meeting: Ribot has words with a rather indignant-looking Hyperion (in stall).. Photo taken at Lord Derby’s Woodland Stud. Copyright protected.
By the time he arrived in America to stud duty at John Galbreath’s Darby Dan Farm, Ribot was a European champion of such astonishing proportions that he vied with Sea-Bird II (1962) and Secretariat (1970) for the title of best thoroughbred of the twentieth century. Bred, owned and trained by the eminent Frederico Tesio of Italy, a bloodline expert whose 1958 book, “Breeding the Thoroughbred,” is regarded as a classic, Ribot was likely the fulfillment of Tesio’s lifelong dream. The bay colt was a near-perfect racehorse, although Tesio was dead before Ribot made his first appearance on the Italian turf. Racing on 2 continents and in 3 different countries, on turf ranging from muddy to fast, Ribot was undefeated in 16 starts, including the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, which he won decisively two years in a row, and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. No question he was a classic horse. But could he become a sire of classic thoroughbreds?
Ribot being led in after still another decisive victory. Copyright protected.
In his first three crops, Ribot produced l’Arc de Triomphe winners Molvedo (1958) and Prince Royal (1961), as well as Ragusa (1960), winner of the Irish Derby, the St. Leger, the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth and the Eclipse Stakes. In America, Ribot produced an astonishing number of exceptional individuals, including Tom Rolfe (1962), Arts and Letters (1966), the outstanding filly, Long Look (1962), who won the Epsom Oaks, the full brothers Ribocco (1964) and Ribero (1965), both of whom won the St. Leger as well as the Irish Derby, and Graustark (1963). Another son, His Majesty (1968), sired Pleasant Colony (1978) who, in turn, sired quality individuals like Behrens (1994), Colonial Affair (1990), the filly Pleasant Stage (1989), Pleasant Tap (1987) and Cormorant (1974), the sire of Go For Gin (1991) and Saratoga Dew (1989). Graustark produced champions like Key To The Mint (1969), Jim French (1968), Prove Out (1969) who was best known as Secretariat’s nemesis and the lovely Tempest Queen (1975). And Ribot’s grandson, Alleged (1974), captured the l’Arc twice, walking in the footsteps of his grandsire.
When we look at the bottom of Barbaro’s pedigree (through his dam La Ville Rouge) we find an open pedigree with no inbreeding in the first 4 generations. This is not to say that La Ville Rouge did not bring an abundance to Barbaro’s bloodline. On her dam’s side, La Reine Rouge (1978), we find the influences of superb horses like Round Table (1954) and Princequillo (1940), as well as Nearctic (1954). Barbaro’s broodmare sire Carson City (1987) is a son of the great Mr. Prospector (1970). Carson City’s dam, Blushing Promise (1982) was the daughter of the talented Summertime Promise (1972), who raced 47 times, winning the Yo Tambien Stakes twice, as well as the Apple Blossom and the Gallorette. Summertime Promise was sired by the incomparable Nijinsky II (1967) out of a daughter of My Babu (1945), Pride’s Promise (1966). Even though Nijinsky II appears only once in the fifth generation of Barbaro’s pedigree, the unmistakable resemblance between Nijinsky, La Ville Rouge and Barbaro is striking.
Ribot’s son, His Majesty, broodmare sire of Dynaformer.
Photographer Tony Leonard’s conformation shot of Carson City, Barbaro’s broodmare sire. Copyright Tony Leonard.
La Ville Rouge, Barbaro’s dam.
Nijinsky II at Claiborne, age 17 (Photo Lesley Sampson. Copyright Lesley Sampson.)
Barbaro at Fair Hill. Photo protected by copyright.
Barbaro and Peter Brette. Photo by Lydia A. Williams (LAW). Copyright Lydia A. Williams(LAW)
Nijinsky at 3, in the yard at Ballydoyle, Ireland.
Nijinsky II was, by all accounts, the British Secretariat — he won the British Triple Crown after a 36-year drought and was worshipped by British racing fans, many of whom were heartbroken when their champion was retired to America. Although he proved an outstanding sire and broodmare sire, Nijinsky’s life came to a premature end, like Secretariat’s, when he developed laminitis. And like Secretariat, Nijinsky II was buried intact at Claiborne Farm, a final tribute to a beloved British champion. To be “touched” by Nijinsky II, as Barbaro so clearly was, seemed a harbinger of greatness. The sons of Nijinsky that received his physical attributes were, without fail, champions. One of his best sons, Golden Fleece ( 1979 ), could easily have been Barbaro’s brother, for in conformation, speed and stamina they were remarkably similar.
As every sports journalist hopes, there were stories of all kinds surrounding the runners in the 2006 Kentucky Derby and Barbaro was no exception. For starters, his trainer Michael Matz — a former Olympic equestrian — had been responsible for saving the lives of three children when a DC -10 plane crash-landed in Sioux City, Iowa in July, 1989. The Jacksons, owners of Lael Farm, had bred Barbaro as well as other exceptional thoroughbreds, including Ireland’s superlative George Washington (2003). The Jacksons were also the co-owners of Grandera (1998), winner of the 2002 Prince of Wales Stakes; Grandera’s dam, Bordighera (1998), is also the dam of George Washington and part of the Jackson’s broodmare band. But Barbaro would become the Jacksons first Kentucky Derby winner. Rounding out “Team Barbaro” was the engaging assistant trainer, Peter Brette, a native of Great Britain who had been around thoroughbreds from an early age, had had a successful career as a jockey in Dubai and then had emigrated to America to apprentice as a trainer.
Barbaro works on the track at Churchill Downs. Photo protected by copyright.
The colt’s maiden, run on grass at Delaware Park when he was a 2 year-old, had resulted in him galloping to a 7 -length win. Next came the Laurel Futurity — run on the grass in 2005 — and the big bay took that handily as well. Since Barbaro was a colt who needed time to grow into himself, his next start — and the first under jockey Edgar Prado — was in the Grade III Tropical Park Derby, also run over turf. Barbaro won in a decisive fashion. The colt’s first start on the dirt came in the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes. As luck would have it, the track was sloppy on race day, but Barbaro — in only his second start on the dirt — won by 3/4 of a length. Barbaro’s final race before the Kentucky Derby was in the Florida Derby, where he showed stamina and heart to hold off Sharp Humour (2003) and win by 1/2 length.
The buzz that had heralded the undefeated Barbaro’s arrival at Churchill Downs followed him onto the track on Derby day.
A buzz is in the air: Barbaro appears before the media. Photo and copyright, Lydia A. Wilson (LAW)
Piloted by jockey Edgar Prado, Barbaro won the Kentucky Derby with such authority that he appeared to simply gallop away from the rest of the field, winning by a decisive 6 1/2 lengths in what was described by The Blood-Horse’s Ray Paulick as a “Derby romp.” Everything about Barbaro’s short life bespoke the making of an icon and his Derby victory only added to his charisma. Just listen to the voices that heralded the colt’s Derby victory:
” From the time he was born, everyone who has been around him or on his back has said he was special.” (Michael Matz, trainer)
“… I told Michael before his first start this was the best horse I had ever been on. He was pretty backward and immature, especially being an April 29 foal, but he had a great big stride and a beautiful way of moving … He’s gotten to the stage now where there’s always another gear. That’s what makes him special. No one knows how good he really is, because we’ve never gotten to the bottom of him…” (Peter Brette, assistant trainer)
Trainer Michael Matz on Barbaro’s best buddy, Messaging, and assistant trainer Peter Brette riding Barbaro. Photo by Lydia A. Williams (LAW). Copyright by Lydia A. Williams (LAW).
Jockey Edgar Prado was quick to connect Barbaro’s victory (and his own first Derby win) to the magic and mythical traditions surrounding Epona, although it is unlikely that he knew about the Celtic goddess. Dedicating his winning ride to his recently deceased mother, Prado said : “ My mother told me, ‘Dreams come true; don’t ever give up on your dreams.’ “
“Don’t ever give up on your dreams”: Edgar Prado stands in the saddle as Barbaro crosses the finish in the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Photo by Amber Chaflin. Copyright Amber Chaflin.
The bond between Roy and Gretchen Jackson and their accomplished 3 year-old was something special, right from the start. Said Gretchen Jackson, ” For some reason, this horse has given us terrific confidence all along…I don’t know why I was so positive about him winning the Derby except just to look at him and see him, I thought he was going to put in a strong performance.” After the Derby, Roy Jackson confessed that “The race itself was a little bit like your wedding — a blur.”
The wonder colt having a good roll in his round pen. Photo by Lydia A. Williams (LAW). Copyright LAW.
Green grass, birds singing — quiet times at Fair Hill. Photo & copyright Lydia A. Williams (LAW).
A stroll across the emerald fields at Fair Hill. Photo & copyright Lydia A. Williams (LAW).
Barbaro’s Kentucky Derby was breathtaking to watch. Coming into the home stretch, his coat glowing a blood bay in the fading afternoon light, Barbaro seemed to fly. Time stood still, became meaningless.
Barbaro was one of those horses that makes one believe anything is possible. He was an expression of life that filled the eye with wonder and delight.
Barbaro steps out on the track for the running of the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Photo & copyright, Lydia A. Williams (LAW).
… Without memory and the traditions in which memory finds a home, a life would be a fading moment. As we hold Barbaro close in our hearts and take a moment to re-memory his Kentucky Derby triumph, we give him the wings to carry us home.
Photo & copyright Amber Chaflin.
THE VAULT wishes to thank the kindness and generosity of equine photographers par excellence Lydia A. Williams (LAW) and Amber Chaflin. Their beautiful and evocative images of Barbaro added a dimension to this article that could never be framed in words. You can show your appreciation by visiting LAW at her website, http://www.theshedrow.com/gallery/index.php AND Amber Chaflin at her website, http://www.downthestretchphotos.com
THE VAULT also sends its best wishes for a safe and successful trip to all of the horses, owners, trainers and jockeys of the thoroughbreds racing at Churchill Downs this week, including the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby 2011.
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