Dick Jerardi | HEARTBREAK

The valiant fight of the people's horse and his caretakers touched many

WHY WERE so many

attracted to Barbaro? Why were they so devoted? Why was yesterday a day they feared so much?

It wasn't just that the horse won the Kentucky Derby looking for all the world like the next great racehorse. It wasn't just that he was

injured when the elusive Triple Crown seemed so close. It wasn't just that the colt seemed to have an uncommon will to live.

It was all of that, and it was our devotion to animals. Barbaro's story was something nearly everybody understood instinctively. This was a magnificent animal that needed human help.

So it was that, the human story that played out through the eyes and voice of a veterinarian who is equal parts compassionate and pragmatic, two owners who so loved their horse that all that mattered was the horse's well-being, and an Olympic-hero trainer who within a 2-week period found himself on his sport's highest mountain and deepest valley with the same horse.

In the end, Barbaro had to be euthanized yesterday morning at New Bolton Center. It was the humane thing. The colt was suffering.

It is the attempt everybody will remember. That was what drew everybody in and kept them there.

Really, who couldn't get this story?

Pat Chapman got it. She lived her fairy-tale horse story in 2004, when Smarty Jones, the colt she owned with her husband, Roy, took everybody on a racing ride that we all thought couldn't possibly be duplicated.

"It shook me up when I heard," she said yesterday from Florida. "It was a complete shock to me. I am just very saddened, heartbroken for Gretchen and Roy [Jackson] and all the fans."

Chapman lived through the

adulation of the Triple Crown. And then had to deal with backlash when Smarty was retired because of injury.

"Smarty had that compromised leg with the cartilage loss," she said.

She was so concerned about Smarty potentially suffering a significant injury that the decision was made to retire him a few months after the Belmont Stakes.

"[Racehorses] are almost like family," Chapman said. "They give everything they've got and then a little more. To be in that position is heartbreaking."

Pat Chapman could not have imagined another horse would come along that people would get so attached to. But it happened.

"I've never seen anything like it," she said. "As well loved as Smarty was, this horse went beyond that."

Jen Reeves got it. She was one of the five co-owners of Afleet

Alex, the girl who loved horse racing who grew into a woman who got a share of the horse-racing dream with a horse that, like Smarty, won two-thirds of the Triple Crown.

"It was really hard when I heard," Jen said. "It's just so


Afleet Alex' first foals were born within the last several days. A daughter of Alex was born

Saturday night at Mark Reid's Walnut Green Farm, a few miles from New Bolton.

"We got really lucky with

Alex," Jen said.

Remember how close Alex came to going down in the 2005 Preakness, a few hundred yards from where Barbaro's leg blew apart last May at Pimlico?

"He wasn't able to be a horse, walk around," Reeves said of


The people, inside and outside racing, got it. They sent e-mails by the hundreds wanting to know every little detail about Barbaro, sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings, because it was important to them.

"The Barbaro story hits me in a different place," wrote Suzy Stepnowski, who grew up in a small town in North Jersey. " I love horses."

She befriended a "blackish gray named Donny Brooke" and visited him whenever she could.

"He looked forward to seeing me everyday," she wrote. "Never wanted me to leave. When I would start to pack up his brushes at the end of the night he would close the stable door with his head knowing I was too small to get out.

"He even saved my life one day when we were riding. We landed in a rabbit hole and were going down. He threw his body in the other direction so that he wouldn't land on me. He got cut up by the fence and I didn't have a scratch. He crawled over on his belly and hit me with his head to make sure I was OK. I was but he was bleeding. Nothing bad but I was just a kid and scared as could be. He was fine and we had many more years of great afternoons together."

She watched the Preakness like millions of others.

"When Barbaro went down my heart stopped as so many others did," she wrote. "I watched the news and the Internet for word every moment of the day."

Sandie Dennis from Greensboro, N.C., summed up so many feelings up so well when she wrote: "This horse and his caregivers have captured something in many, many people - horse lovers and regular people alike. They give us hope and they show us courage."

The owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, got it. The trainer, Michael Matz, got it. The vet,

Dr. Dean Richardson, got it.

"I have very positive thoughts," Gretchen Jackson said. "It was a brilliant time . . . It was great that we had so many people that adored him."

It was, as horse racing so often is, as high as you can be and as low as you can be. It is simply the nature of the sport.

"I knew if this day came, that it would be very difficult to keep my composure," Richardson said. "But it is what it is. It's not the first horse I've cried over."

Richardson, the Jacksons and one of Richardson's residents were there at the end when Barbaro was put down.

Somebody wanted to know whether they talked to the horse.

"We were all there, and he knew us," Richardson said. "Sure, [we did]. I mean my guess is . . . "

Long emotional pause.

"I think anybody would." *

Send e-mail to jerardd@phillynews.com.