A bad break that can happen to anyone

After watching Barbaro break down in Saturday's Preakness Stakes, Jay recalls having witnessed a simular horror before.

Updated: May 20, 2006, 8:54 PM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

A friend of mine had a horse bust through a starting gate.

His horse was a filly.

The race was for claiming horses at a small track.

The filly went into the gate peacefully enough near the middle of a seven or eight-horse field. She didn't rear onto her hind legs or act up in any way during the post parade.

Upon knocking open the gate, the filly took a few steps and looked around and moved no further.

Somebody in a windbreaker came to get her; I'd have preferred somebody wearing a medical smock.

This startling action triggered a number of runs. Bettors ran for the windows to try to get the filly off their tickets. Besides being a demonstration of dexterity and beauty, horse racing is also a gamble. Most horse players are compassionate. The filly busting through the gate didn't appear hobbled. Most horse players running to the windows probably looked over their shoulders to see if the animal was okay.

Gamblers run toward windows after horses do awkward things because the horses are not always inspected by a veterinarian, they're not always scratched from that race.

My friend ran from the grandstand toward the rail, then right, in the direction of the starting gate, concerned about his friend, his horse.

Seen through a camera two blocks up, a horse busting through a gate doesn't seem too violent. Gates at high-dollar tracks are as padded as possible. Neither does an NFL lineman smashing into a blocking dummy seem all that violent. Whereas the front legs of a horse knock the starting gate open, impetus comes from the back legs.

My friend's filly was not scratched from the race. Nobody with a medical degree came to see if skin had been broken. They just put her back in the gate and then opened it up. Due to the short field, a scratch would have meant a number of wagers would have had to be refunded. Then, too, some owners and trainers have been know to go berserk if one of their horses was scratched if it got loose and only ran around the track once or twice.

The filly broke very badly, and who could blame her.

She trotted around last.

I went with my friend to the track to see the horse after the race. This gate was probably not state of the art. From where I sat, it looked like a lot of plumbing. The filly was bloody around the shoulders and knees and was unsteady on her feet. My friend was extremely angry because she had been put back in the system to run in such condition.

Ever since that day, I thought it might be a decent idea to make it a rule to scratch any horse busting through a gate; or at the very least, make it a rule to get everybody else out of the gate and take the time to run a thorough check on the horse by a veterinarian.

There were a dozen people at my house to watch the 131st Preakness.

All left quietly and reflectively.

In any fast-paced sport, you're about a second from party flags being lowered to half-mast.

There can be little more sickening than an injury to a horse because the horse keeps trying to run and win on three legs.

The lesson to be learned from brave competitors is to take nothing for granted.

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