My love for horses began when I was a little girl. I watched every horse race that was televised as well as any movies about horses. I had friends who had horses and visited them every chance I got.
But it was the story of Black Beauty that made a real impact on my life. Told from the horse’s perspective, the story made me aware of the living situations of horses and our responsibility for taking care of these wondrous creatures who possess not only individual personalities but also spirit, emotion and memory.
Growing up I watched the Derby every year on television and in 1969 Majestic Prince was the first horse I ever witnessed attempting to win the coveted Triple Crown. Just a few years later I watched Secretariat make Triple Crown history (1973) and like so many I was captivated with him. However, it was following Ruffian’s tragic 1975 breakdown in her match race with Foolish Pleasure that I temporarily turned away from horse racing, heartsick about the harsh reality that not all racehorses’ lives have happy endings.
Then came Barbaro.
The undefeated bay son of Dynaformer and La Ville Rouge, Barbaro soared to the finish at the 2006 Kentucky Derby and made many of us believe that Triple Crown history was about to be made again. After the race, his jockey Edgar Prado spoke of how “dreams come true” and analyst Gary Stevens used the word “superstar.” Owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson and trainer Michael Matz knew they had something once-in-a-lifetime in Barbaro.
It was just two weeks later at the Preakness that Barbaro’s tragic breakdown occurred. In the following weeks and months, I watched like many others for news of Barbaro’s courageous battle for survival at the New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Barbaro endured nearly a dozen surgeries and lived in and out of a sling to treat the laminitis. His veterinarian Dr. Dean Richardson said that Barbaro knew they were all working to save him and ensure him a good quality of life. Still, in the end all of the best efforts weren’t enough; on the morning of January 29, 2007, Barbaro’s condition took a bad turn and he was humanely euthanized with those who loved him by his side.
Following his death, I felt compelled as an artist and a horse lover to create something to honor this amazing equine athlete whose life had so deeply touched me. In a surge of creative inspiration, I took bolts of deep reddish-brown dupioni silk and black satin and fashioned a hat foundation to reflect Barbaro’s bay coat and dark mane and tail.
I used chiffon for the red Derby roses; eight to reflect Barbaro’s post position in the Derby. Black chiffon was used for the sash and long blunt cut tails; a mixture of green shantung and metallic taffeta were used to fashion the leaves. The hat was stitched together with a lot of love and more than a few tears.
And that was just the beginning. Barbaro’s courageous spirit ignited a fire within me to promote horse welfare. As a first step I created a new webpage at maggiemae.com called “Hats and Horses: A Lifelong Love Affair” to showcase various horse welfare organizations around the country. In 2008, I teamed up with Thoroughbred Charities of America and Foxwoods Resort Casino of Connecticut for a Derby Day fundraiser for the Eight Belles Memorial Fund, to create and donate a very special one of a kind hat in celebration of Eight Belles for the event’s auction. Between 2009 and 2011, I created Derby hats to honor Rachel Alexandra, Secretariat and Majestic Prince for the Kentucky Derby Museum’s Annual Hat Contest Exhibit.
Then, in the fall of 2009, I created the concept of “Hats Off to he Horses: The Road to the Derby”, an annual fundraising project that would target one Thoroughbred retirement facility to raise funds for their retirees and help to educate the public about the specific needs of retired racehorses. I contacted Alex Brown of Alex Brown Racing to get his recommendation for a retirement facility. Alex suggested Michael Blowen at Old Friends in Kentucky. Michael’s dream for a retirement haven for retired racehorses was coming true and I was thrilled when he agreed to join me for the inaugural year of the project which has now become an annual event with them that has raised over $31,000 for their facility.
In May of 2006 Barbaro captured the hearts of a nation when he won the Kentucky Derby; when he died, he moved a nation to act. Barboro’s story captivated people, many of whom had never known much about racehorses. As a result of his catastrophic racing injury and subsequent death, steps were taken and continue to be taken to help racehorses have a better quality of life, including funding laminitis research and dealing with the issues of track safety and illegal doping. This to me is his greatest legacy.
When people ask me how I got started supporting the retired racehorses I
simply tell them, It all began with Barbaro. What started with one hat created to honor a racing champion has become a life’s work devoted to helping horses. And on this day, the anniversary of Barbaro’s death, I am proud to say that I’ll continue to support the horses, one hat at a time, thanks to him.
Please enjoy this special slideshow of the “Barbaro” Derby hat design. Special thanks to Lydia A. Williams for generously sharing her images of Barbaro with us. Please visit Lydia’s website to see more of her work.
Please note: the original “Barbaro” hat design is not for sale.
And if you would like to view the Derby hats that have been created for our four years of the “Hats Off to the Horses” auctions for Old Friends, please visit the Old Friends Hat Auction Portfolio webpage!