Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Like most of America, I fell under the spell of the talented athlete, Barbaro. I was riveted by his brilliance and ability. Despite Barbaro’s tragic end, I wanted to read a book that told his story, that gave him a voice without being maudlin or poorly-written. So thanks to one of my readers who kindly purchased this book for me, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read My Guy Barbaro: A Jockey’s Journey Through Love, Triumph, and Heartbreak with America’s Favorite Horse (NYC: HarperCollins; 2008) by Edgar Prado and John Eisenberg. Throughout this entire book, I felt as though I was sitting with Edgar Prado in my watering hole, drinking a beer and sharing a plate of nachos, listening to him tell an amazing story, a story that I was breathless to hear, even though I know how it ends.

This plain-spoken but heartfelt book begins with a text message that Prado received on his cell phone while he was sitting in the jockey’s room at Belmont Park. Translated from Prado’s native Spanish, this message said; “‘You don’t know me and I don’t know you but God put you on this earth for one purpose. Whatever you do in life, make sure you fulfill that purpose.’” Prado, who was still mourning the death of Barbaro, was shaken, but later, he wondered if his purpose in life was to have been Barbaro’s teammate.

But let’s tell the story, first. The initial chapter starts with the first time Prado ever set eyes on Barbaro. Actually, since Prado was riding another horse in the same race, he mostly saw Barbaro’s butt as that horse accelerated easily away from a field of two-year-old thoroughbreds in the Laurel Futurity. Prado, impressed, writes “[m]y horse had basically stopped running when he saw Barbaro pull away. I swore the sight had depressed him. But it had thrilled me. When you see a horse accelerate and finish like that .. you know you’re seeing something special.”

After that encounter, Prado asked his agent to set things up so he could ride Barbaro. Because Prado is one of the best jockeys in racing, he got his wish: He rode Barbaro in his next race and then throughout the remainder of his illustrious career. Prado fondly recalls his “first date” with the victorious Barbaro thusly;

I could hear the other horses around me blowing like air-conditioning units, worn out from the race. Barbaro was barely breathing hard. He seemed ready for more and disappointed that he had to stop. He glanced back with a quizzical look, as if to say, “That’s it? That’s all?” [p. 25].

Prado clearly admires Barbaro, waxing poetic about his running style, describing it as a work of art like a book by Shakespeare, a painting by Picasso, or touchdown passes by Peyton Manning. But this book doesn’t focus exclusively on Barbaro, instead, it tells the story of the strong bond that developed between horse and rider, and how that subtle bond formed the framework of the brilliant team comprised of Barbaro and Edgar Prado.

Unlike Barbaro, who had a high-class pedigree, we learn that Prado came from humble beginnings in Peru. As we read about Prado’s childhood, he tells us that he is the second-to-the-youngest in a family of eleven children and we learn where his work ethic came from; how his poor family had to work incredibly hard just to earn enough money to buy groceries; how his mother demanded that all her children do things “the right way”; how his dream was to become a lawyer; and how his father and older siblings, all of whom worked at the local racetrack, Monterrico, helped him develop into that track’s top jockey — at age seventeen. Amazingly, Prado accomplished all this while still attending school full-time.

After we learn a little about Prado’s childhood, we also learn about the great jockey’s role in Barbaro’s childhood, so to speak. He discusses Barbaro’s tremendous natural talent on, and preference for, running on turf (grass) surfaces and the abrupt and surprising switch to dirt tracks — so the horse could compete in the Triple Crown races as a three-year-old.

Prado describes the different running styles that are necessary to compete successfully on a turf versus a dirt track. He speculates that Barbaro’s fondness for running on grass surfaces (despite becoming comfortable on dirt tracks) combined with standing on grass instead of a hard concrete floor while being saddled prior to the Preakness Stakes may have contributed to his injury in the opening strides of that race;

Now he was being saddled on grass, and I think .. he may have thought he was about to race on grass, which excited him. He was a turf horse at heart .. [h]e was never happier than when he was running on grass. The longer he stood on the grass, the more excited he became. He breathed harder. His muscles tensed. He was noticeably pumped up by the time I got on him, and he was .. agitated, a little too eager to get going. Before his prior races he had always been cool and confident but now, he seemed restless, unsettled. [p. 118].

Prado describes Barbaro’s uncharacteristic behavior when he kicked open his starting gate before the Preakness Stakes started, and how he began running down the track, alone. This was a very troubling development for several reasons, but neither Prado nor the track veterinarian found any sign of injury, so Barbaro was once again loaded into the starting gate. Moments later, Prado found himself pulling up the running Barbaro because the horse suddenly “wasn’t right” — stopping the people’s horse within a few dozen feet of more than one hundred thousand cheering fans and with the entire sports world watching, judging. I was absolutely impressed with Prado’s courage, self-confidence and quick thinking, and his unswerving loyalty to his horse. I was also impressed with the information provided by Barbaro’s medical team, both in the book and also to the media, as the fight to save the horse’s life was unfolding publically.

Even though this book was written by two people, it speaks with one strong and clear voice: it is just such a readable book. This story is so rich and nuanced; Prado’s quiet narrative makes the reader feel as if he is accompanying the jockey every step of the way, from his many early struggles to the blazing lights of media attention and the roaring crowds at Pimlico Racetrack to the silent stall in the New Bolton Center that Barbaro occupied for the next eight months of his life. The authors provide insight into the special bond that exists between horses and their riders, between people and animals; we also are given a rare look into the internal workings of horseracing and equine medicine, and the mutual respect that developed between the members of Barbaro’s team, and we even get a glimpse into the relationship between a celebrity and his fans through excerpts from some Prado’s fanmail that were published in the book. Most of all, I was pleased to learn about Prado’s family’s steadfast devotion to this one unique horse, a devotion that deepened into respect and even love while Barbaro was in the hospital.

There were several things that I found frustrating. First was the authors’ neglect to mention that the Jacksons owned a second unbeaten horse, the small and slightly-built colt named Showing Up, who also started in the Derby, finishing a respectable sixth. And curiously, Barbaro’s groom, Eduardo Hernandez, was confusingly referred to as “Jose” — huh? Was that Eduardo’s nickname? Or a mistake?

Those quibbles aside, I couldn’t put this book down; indeed, I didn’t want to. Throughout its 200 pages, I found the gallant Barbaro quivering with life and promise and strength once again, demonstrating how truly remarkable he is. Was. As if the story-telling isn’t evocative enough, the 16-page insert of color photographs are there to remind the reader of some of the events in Barbaro’s brief life. I highly recommend this wonderfully-written account to everyone who loves horses or horseracing, for everyone who enjoys love stories and everyone who is absolutely fascinated by personal memoirs. Furthermore, I wonder if Edgar Prado’s purpose in life is to be remembered simply as Barbaro’s jockey, or if it is to help us, Barbaro’s fans, to never forget this great personality, Barbaro, and his generous gift to all of us?

Edgar Prado is one of the world’s best jockeys, with more than six thousand victories, including three Breeders’ Cups, one Kentucky Derby (aboard Barbaro) and two Belmont Stakes. Prado has received tremendous recognition for his talents, including the coveted Eclipse Award for the nation’s outstanding jockey (2006) and induction into Horse Racing’s National Hall of Fame (2008). Prado is involved with Belmont Park’s “Anna House”, a day care center for the children of backstretch workers. He was born in Lima, Peru, and was one of eleven children. He and his wife, Liliana, and three children; Edgar Jr., Patricia and Luis, are American citizens and live in Hollywood, Florida.

John Eisenberg is a racing commentator and sports journalist who writes for the Baltimore Sun. He has written several other books about horseracing including; The Great Match Race: When North Met South in America’s First Sports Spectacle (Mariner Books; 2007), Native Dancer: The Grey Ghost: Hero of a Golden Age (Warner Books; 2003) and The Longest Shot: Lil E Tee and the Kentucky Derby (University Press of Kentucky; 2002) as well as several books about other sports.

Comments

  1. #1 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    May 29, 2008

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