WEST GROVE, PA—Rumors and speculation that beloved racehorse Barbaro faked his own death last January in order to start a new life out of the public eye are beginning to surface among equine conspiracy theorists, who refuse to believe the horse would allow himself to be euthanized due to a broken right hind leg and laminitis of the left hoof.
"Barbaro lives," said Raleigh, NC resident and longtime fan Keith Greer, gesturing to the wall of his apartment he has papered with grainy black-and-white images of a horse he identifies as a healthy, fully recovered Barbaro. "These photographs were taken in Maryland on Feb. 11, 2007—precisely two weeks after Barbaro's supposed 'death.' Countless eyewitnesses in the area reported seeing a mysterious horse of Barbaro's size, coloration, and stature galloping freely about the corral with what each one described as a 'joyful gait, save for a suspicious limp in the right hind leg.'"
"This all adds up to one thing: Barbaro is still alive," Greer added. "That was a wax horse in that coffin."
Although most conspiracy theorists agree that Barbaro faked his death, his motives in doing so remain disputed. Some say he fled from increased media attention, while many claim Barbaro feared that he would never be able to live up to his own larger-than-life legend upon his recovery. Still other theories suggest that Barbaro ran off with an unidentified mare to start a family; that he is now roaming the countryside in disguise, mentoring and training troubled colts; and that he was attempting to dodge multiple death threats he received from a deranged Brother Derek fan.
"We do know several things," Greer said, poring over heavily notated New Bolton Veterinary Clinic medical documents. "We know that Barbaro went into the recovery pool Jan. 28 at 5:40 p.m. We know he ate corn and oats at 8:10 p.m. And we are told he was 'euthanized' at 10:30 a.m. the next morning. But! What happened during those 15 hours for which we have no records?"
Ever since the hoax rumors began circulating, hundreds of "Barbaro sightings" have come pouring in from around the nation, as grieving fans report seeing the horse everywhere from a secluded farm in Montana to the Iron Horse Stables in Arkansas to grazing in the backyard of 92-year-old racing enthusiast Ethel Vernon's Knoxville, TN home. Still others in Kentucky say they are woken from sleep on moonless nights by Barbaro's distinctive hoofbeats as he canters the streets outside Churchill Downs, reliving his former glory.
"I was driving near Saratoga Springs the other day, alone, when out of my passenger window I saw Barbaro galloping across an open field," said Davis Hammersly, who was in the crowd at the 2006 Preakness when Barbaro suffered his career-ending injury. "At first I thought I was seeing things, but I'm sure it was him. Same long face, same brown coat, same mane, tail and everything."
"You don't forget a horse like Barbaro," Hammersly added.
"I was at a little eighth-mile track outside of Bakersfield when a big brown 3-year-old won by nine lengths despite a hitch in his gait," said career horseplayer David Carnell. "Won big, too. I thought I'd found the next Barbaro. But the more I think about it, there's no way it was anyone else but Barbaro himself."
"I saw Barbaro in the parking lot at the mall," said 11-year-old New Hampshire resident Kimberly Drexel. "He was hiding behind a big car. I went to tell my mom, but then he was gone."
Many believers have begun searching for "clues" left behind by the former Kentucky Derby winner, with many agreeing that Barbaro's alleged method of death—euthanasia—provides the most striking evidence that his death was a hoax.
"How are we being led to believe that Barbaro—who fought so valiantly through all those injuries for eight months—suddenly just 'gave up' and allowed himself to be euthanized?" said Harry Matheson, author of The Barbaro Conundrum. "Barbaro would never die like that, and everybody knows it, and it's ludicrous to think that we would simply accept that he did."
On Tuesday, University of Pennsylvania criminologists, acting on a public petition, entered photos of Barbaro taken at the New Bolton Clinic only hours before his death into special face-aging software to determine what Barbaro would look like after two months. Results showed a remarkably similar-looking horse with a slightly longer mane.
Matheson has documented several other clues, including a leg cast found outside the home of Barbaro's trainer Michael Matz, his sire Dynaformer's continuing silence concerning the incident, and—perhaps most peculiar—the fact that just one day after his alleged death, a brown horse with a slight limp boarded a double-decker cattle trailer in Pennsylvania under the assumed name of "Serendipitous," an alias Barbaro reportedly used several times when checking into stables on the road.
"A surveillance camera at Lael Stables in West Grove, PA captured a brief image of a horse entering Barbaro's childhood stall at midnight on March 5, 2007," Matheson said as the two-second clip played on a continuous loop behind him. "The next day, there were fresh hoofprints in the mud, and the hay had been strewn about. He clearly came back for something. But what?"
Despite the legions of fans who now believe Barbaro is alive and well somewhere in the U.S., others within the horse-racing community are quick to dismiss the theory, claiming that Barbaro was in fact assassinated after the Kentucky Derby, that the horse who raced in his place at the Preakness was an imposter, and that Barbaro's injury was staged by the government as part of a massive cover-up to divert the nation's attention from crucial domestic issues and the war in Iraq.