BALTIMORE – Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke down at the start of the Preakness on Saturday, galloping only a few hundred yards when his right rear leg flailed out and he veered sideways while his eight rivals passed him.
The hushed crowd of more than 100,000 at Pimlico Race Course watched as jockey Edgar Prado pulled the powerful colt to a stop and jumped off. With Barbaro still on the track, there wasn't much enthusiasm for the finish, especially with many of the fans in tears.
Bernardini won the $1 million race, beating Sweetnorthernsaint by 5 1-4 lengths.
Barbaro, thought by many to be a serious contender for the Triple Crown if he won the Preakness, was diagnosed with a fracture above and below his ankle. Dr. Larry Bramlage, of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, called it a "life-threatening" injury.
The horrifying scene occurred right in front of the grandstand as the field of nine headed to the first turn. The unbeaten 1-2 favorite was in the middle of the pack when he suddenly dropped back under Prado.
"During the race, he took a bad step and I can't really tell you what happened," Prado said. "I heard a noise about 100 yards into the race and pulled him right up."
The colt was noticeably favoring his right rear leg.
"It's a serious fracture. This will require pretty major surgery," Bramlage said. "Keep your fingers crossed and say a prayer. His career is over. This is very life-threatening.
"Under the best circumstances, we will try to save him as a stallion."
The 1-2 favorite, Barbaro broke through the gate before the official start, but Bramlage said that had nothing to do with the injury. After the colt was led back to the gate, the field broke cleanly.
As soon as his horse broke down, trainer Michael Matz bolted from his seat and ran onto the track where he embraced Prado. The jockey walked over to owner Gretchen Jackson and said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
She put an arm on his shoulder and said, "You did a great job."
Fans were crying in the grandstand as the strapping 3-year-old was loaded into an equine ambulance and taken away, his injured leg in an inflatable cast.
"You never expect it," Jackson said as she walked back to the barn.
The devastating development drained all the excitement from a Pimlico crowd expecting a victory by Barbaro that would have set the stage for seventh Triple try in the last 10 years.
The Triple talk is over now.
Bernardini took control from pacesetter Like Now and pulled away for his victory. Hemingway's Key was third behind Sweetnorthernsaint, followed by Brother Derek, Greeley's Legacy, Platinum Couple, Like Now and Diabolical.
Ridden by Javier Castellano, Bernardini became the first Preakness winner who didn't run in the Derby since Red Bullet in 2000.
"It's very exciting for everyone, for me especially, to win the Preakness. It's also very, very sad. It's a big disappointment," Castellano said.
Lightly raced, Bernardini was taking a major step up in class in just his fourth career start. The well-bred son of A.P. Indy came into $1 million Preakness off an impressive win in the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct on April 29.
The colt has now won three straight after running fourth in his debut, and earned $650,000 for Darley Stable, operated by Dubai's Sheik Mohammed.
Winning time for the 1 3-16 miles was 1:54.65, off the stakes record of 1:53.40.
Bernardini paid $27.80, $9.40 and $5.80. Sweetnorthernsaint, who finished seventh in the Derby, returned $7.80 and $5. Hemingway's Key paid $8.
Winning trainer Tom Albertrani said he didn't see Barbaro break down.
"I saw Michael run by me and I knew something was wrong," Albertrani said. "You feel very upset when you see something like that."
Barbaro was taken back to his barn, where he was X-rayed, tranquilized and stabilized before being transported to the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, a veterinary hospital, in Kennett Square, Pa.
Matz and assistant trainer Peter Brette accompanied their horse.
"Barbaro's behaving like the true champion that he is and hopefully he'll get the best care possible and be all right," D.D. Matz, the trainer's wife said.
Bramlage said a human would have to spend six weeks in bed with a comparable fracture, "with a horse that's impossible."
Thoroughbreds have broken down in the past in big races: In the 1993 Preakness, Union City broke down and was euthanized; in the 1999 Belmont Stakes, with Charismatic trying to win the Triple Crown, he was pulled up while finishing third with a fractured ankle; Go For Wand broke down in the stretch of the 1990 Breeders' Cup Distaff and was euthanized; and in 1975, the great Ruffian broke down in a match race with Foolish Pleasure. She was operated on, but was later euthanized.