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The Third Saturday in May
No one who saw it would ever forget it. It was the third Saturday in May. The bay colt, dark reddish brown with a white heart on his forehead, stood in the starting gate. He was one of the most famous athletes in America. Everyone expected him to win this race. It seemed there were TV cameras everywhere. The grandstand was filled with thousands of people. Only a moment before, all of them had been talking, sounding like a meeting of bees. But now a hush hung over everything the grandstand, the racetrack, even the stables farther away. The air crackled with excitement.
Halfway down the line in the starting gate, the young horse could hear the clang and snap of the other horses' gates closing them in. His body was coiling. His legs seemed lit with fire. In only a second now the starting bell would ring, and he would uncoil in a fierce leap forward. He was so eager to run that his legs almost trembled, itching to be let go. He could hear the rhythm of his speed song building, building, building. And then, he could no longer wait.
He burst through the starting gate and ran down the track alone! The fans in the grandstand gasped.
Another horse, ridden by an outrider, galloped after him to try to catch him and bring him back. Edgar Prado, the young horse's jockey, stood in the stirrups, working hard to tell the horse through the reins, Look, kiddo, you've jumped the gun. This is not the race yet. Whoa!
But the young stallion's passion to run was like a fire licking at the ground. His legs sang to their own rhythm: Run, run. This is what you were born to do. Your whole heart, your hooves, your legs, your lungs say, Run. Run. Run!
He wanted to never stop.
Only after great effort was the jockey able to pull the horse up and tell him through the reins and the way he changed his weight in the saddle, Now, come on, we have to go back and do it all over again. Don't fuss. This time wait until I tell you to go!
The fans in the grandstand murmured. The horse's trainer worried too. Had the young, eager horse spent too much energy breaking out of the starting gate? Would he be too tired to win the race now?
All eyes watched as the young stallion was led back. The track's veterinarian looked him over, found no injuries, and declared him sound to run. Once again he was led into his place in the starting gate. Prado stroked his neck, speaking calming words. And then the starting bell rang with a loud BRRRR! And the gate sprang open.
The young horse covered the first yards of track as though he were lifting up and soaring over the length of it. "Look. No. He's got plenty of run left," someone in the grandstand said. "The false start isn't going to hurt him a bit. He's so strong."
Others now looked for the young stallion's wings to sprout. It seemed he had to have them. He had run six races and won them all and most of them easily, far out in front of every other horse. He was bound to make history. He would be the most successful racehorse since Secretariat, who had won all three of the most difficult races by many lengths. And that was thirty years before. Everyone thought the bay colt might be the next Triple Crown winner too, since he'd already won the Kentucky Derby and was favored here in the Preakness. He'd have only the Belmont to win next and the crown would be his!
Not everyone expected that Barbaro could do this. From the time he was born, many said he could run fast only on grass. It was said he might never learn how to win races on dirt.
"He lifts his knees too high," some said.
"His running style is more suitable for grass," others pointed out.
"He takes too many vacations," others said. "He's not tough enough for these big races."
But the young horse had proven them all wrong.
His mother could run fast on dirt; his father had been fast, period. And they, as well as all the other winners in his family, had passed on to him his ferocious desire to be out front, to be leading the herd, to be running as though his very blood were a fire no one could put out.
"Go, go, go, Barbaro!" the fans were yelling. The sound was deafening during the first few yards of the race.
And then a sudden loud sound of everyone gasping again filled the air.
The young, proud horse had unexpectedly taken a wrong step. His back ankle turned. It was clear his pain was searing, but he did not want to stop. His right hind foot refused to support his weight. The bones in his leg were broken, but he would not let that keep him from running the race.
He hobbled; he lunged; he hopped.
He would run, no matter what. He would run until someone fought him to stop. He ran until his jockey jumped off to hold his reins. He shook his broken leg, trying to rid himself of the pain. If he could, he would outrun even the ambulance coming to take him off the track. And then he dipped his head toward his jockey as though to say, Help me out, here.
Even as the race ended and another horse won, he ran in his mind, and he ran in his heart.
The crowd watched the ambulance drive away. It was all they could see now of Barbaro. Inside, the young horse concentrated on the pain. He did not yet know he would have to learn how to run in another way.
This time there would be no money prizes. There would be no chance for a line in a racing history book. This time he would run for his life.
Copyright © 2007 by Shelley Mickle