LOUISVILLE, KY—In a stirring show of love and respect, millions of people—including Barbaro's owners, breeders, associates, foreign dignitaries and heads of state from over 90 countries, celebrities, and throngs of grief-stricken Americans hoping to catch one last glimpse of the 4-year-old stallion before he was laid to rest—gathered at Churchill Downs Wednesday to mourn the passing of a national hero and a beloved horse.
Although many feared this day was inevitable following Barbaro's injury at the 2006 Preakness, the news of his death nonetheless stunned and saddened the millions of citizens who, over the past eight months, had come to identify with this 1,200-pound racehorse. Overcome with despair, people from Maine to California—many of whom had never even met Barbaro—made the long drive to the Bluegrass State to pay their final respects to the late thoroughbred.
"I came all the way down from New York so my 3-year-old son could be here," said Cynthia Grossman, who waited for nearly 12 hours outside the famed racetrack in freezing-cold conditions along with 2 million others whose lives were affected in some way by this horse. "He got a little scared when he saw Barbaro, since he didn't really understand what was going on. Sure, all he sees now is a dead horse in a casket, but when he grows up, he'll realize what a special moment this was for him and for America."
"Barbaro inspired all of us to do great things—the least I could do for him is say a proper goodbye," said Gerry Holbrook of Nashville, TN, who hitched a ride to Louisville Tuesday evening because he "felt it was the right thing to do." "Without Barbaro's example, I don't think I would be a lawyer."
At 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, a horse-drawn caisson transported Barbaro's body down a carefully planned route along Central Avenue, where people young and old stood silent, teary-eyed, and completely motionless save for the occasional salute. Once he arrived at Churchill Downs, his body was carried to the base of the grandstand by a team of 48 pallbearers. Dressed in his finest silks, and wearing his Kentucky Derby garland and Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck, Barbaro lay in state inside his 18-foot-long, five-foot-deep mahogany casket.
Many remarked that he looked like he was at peace.
"Barbaro was a great horse, but an even better person," said Cheryl McElroy, still visibly shaken after filing past Barbaro's coffin and placing a single red rose upon it. "He taught us how to triumph over adversity and how to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds. He showed us that anyone could win the Kentucky Derby if they just believed in themselves—even you or I. And he proved that people can lead perfectly normal, productive lives after breaking their long pastern bone and being diagnosed with laminitis of the left hoof."
During the ceremony, the usually festive Churchill Downs was eerily quiet, with the only sounds in the building coming from the low rumble of muffled drums, the clacking of horses' hooves, and a dirge-like rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home" played in a minor key by the University of Louisville marching band. As they laid his casket on the bier, Elton John performed a special version of "Candle In The Wind" rewritten to describe Barbaro's tragically short life.
Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, decided not to deliver a eulogy, instead choosing to recite the play-by-play transcript of the 2006 Kentucky Derby, which was read in a stirring 114-second speech by Churchill Downs track announcer Luke Kruytbosch.
"I will never forget Barbaro," said Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took a redeye flight out of Tehran upon hearing that Barbaro had passed away. "He was a special horse."
In addition to the millions of people on hand, some of Barbaro's closest colleagues, including Private Vow, Brother Derek, and Point Determined, were also in attendance. Although they remained mostly quiet throughout the ceremony, the looks in their dark, liquid eyes suggested that they, too, felt the same loss as the American people.
"Though he is gone, Barbaro's memory will live on forever in all the great things he did for this nation," said Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who recently founded the Barbaro Foundation to help disadvantaged youths receive proper schooling and to provide medical assistance for AIDS patients in Africa. "He had a lot left to live for, and so much more left to give. I sometimes wish the Good Lord had taken me instead of him."
Although he was buried just yesterday, plans are already being made to honor the horse's memory with the rechristening and rededicating of several American institutions, such as Barbaro National Airport in Chicago, the monolithic Barbaro Monument in Washington, and the prestigious Barbaro School of Government at Harvard University.