Barbaro gets posthumous tribute

STANTON, Del. -- No cake, no oats. Only memories, tears, and stories of Barbaro's spirit were shared at this birthday party.

Fans traveled from around the world to pay tribute and honor Barbaro at Delaware Park on Sunday on what would have been the Kentucky Derby winner's fourth birthday.

Strangers who had only chatted on Internet message boards hugged like old friends, connected by the colt who became a symbol of strength and courage before he was euthanized in January.

"I never would have anticipated anything like this, this time last year let alone four years ago when Barbaro was born," co-owner Gretchen Jackson told nearly 600 fans at the track's grove.

Not even the most dedicated horse fan could have ever imagined this. Fans of Barbaro, from Philadelphia to South Africa, jammed two tents for the "Celebration of Barbaro's Life," at the same track where he won his maiden race on Oct. 4, 2005.

"I'm going to try not to fall apart, but I'm going to," organizer Sharon Crumb said.

She did, and she wasn't alone.

Fans -- some wearing Barbaro shirts with a halo around the "B" -- dabbed tears while Barbaro's owners spoke or while they personally shared their stories with them. Roy and Gretchen Jackson were mobbed like rock stars, signing autographs, posing for pictures, but mostly just listening to the fans who wanted a minute to tell their own stories.

Someone put an "FOB" hat on Roy Jackson's head, signed by so many of Barbaro's devoted followers.

"You're our hero!" one fan cried out.

Not even the Jacksons thought Barbaro's legacy would live on like this.

"It's made it a great deal easier for all of those connected and close to Barbaro to go day-by-day and go through this whole journey," Roy Jackson said. "I would implore you, as we're going to do, to continue to work on his legacy. I think that's the important thing to do now."

Exercise rider Alex Brown created the chat room on trainer Tim Woolley's Web site for racing fans that started the birth of the FOBs -- that's Fans of Barbaro. What once was an online Barbaro meeting spot has transformed into a horse welfare community.

The FOBs have raised about $250,000 and personally rescued nearly 600 horses, started fund drives for laminitis research and other equine diseases, and pressured lawmakers to pass anti-slaughter bills. On Saturday night, another $15,000 was raised at an auction fundraiser.

"Barbaro's done more good after his death," said Jo Deibel, who has had some of the horses rescued from killer pens moved to her horse haven.

Brown, a rider at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md., where Michael Matz trained Barbaro, teamed with Crumb to organize the celebration. Without the Web site blog, Barbaro's fans may never have had an outlet to show their love and appreciation for the colt.

"It wasn't going to happen like this," Brown said. "I hope it's a good thing. These guys have raised boatloads of money for horse welfare, saved a whole bunch of horses. How can you not think this is a great thing?"

The FOBs surely thought this was a great event.

There was the fan in Minnesota who put together a banner of all of the FOBs with a fan from New York. The two women met for the first time this weekend.

No one traveled like 22-year-old Nadine Bradley, who made the 30-hour trip from Pretoria, South Africa. She also posted on Brown's message board, and knew she had to make the trip with her mother.

"I think the fact that he put up a fight and didn't take it lying down," she said. "He wanted to live. He had that spark in his eye."

One fan needed a more permanent reminder of Barbaro. Mary Cebzanov, of Philadelphia, had the colt's image tattooed on the back of her left shoulder. She had Barbaro's face, a horseshoe under the neck, and his name inked in script under the shoe.

Cebzanov watched Barbaro win his maiden race and said she became a true fan after he won the Holy Bull Stakes in February 2005.

"I knew right away he was something special," she said.

This wasn't an entirely somber birthday. Mini-horseshoes weighed down blue "Happy Birthday Barbaro" balloons, and everything from books to stuffed horses to painting were for sale or up for auction with proceeds going toward various equine charities.

"I just can't believe we all came together for this," Crumb said. "It's been more wonderful than I could have hoped. It's just a beautiful day."

Fans were greeted by a lengthy welcoming sign written by, ahem, Barbaro. One excerpt:

"It is because of your dedication and devotion that you've achieved great things as a Barbaro Nation!! We will always be a team and I will be beside you and support you with your United Causes. ... Just call my name and I'll be there. ... Love, Barbaro."

Barbaro's ashes remain with the Jacksons while they decide the proper way to honor him.

"I see love and I see affection, and I hope they feel that back from me," Gretchen Jackson said.

To contribute to the NTRA Charities - Barbaro Memorial Fund, click here.