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Alex Brown is plugged in
Friday, May 20, 2011 - by Ellen Harvey

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One of the great things about my job is the people I meet. They strain the borders of credulity and sanity at times, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I sometimes wonder if I didn’t get stuck inside a screenplay, not just a life. 

There are the people you meet, there are the characters, and every once in a while, someone who defies categorization. That’s Alex Brown, and you can meet him at the Harness Racing Museum in Goshen on June 5 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Alex will talk about a subject that eventually affects nearly every horse owner – laminitis. He’ll discuss how that disease affected, in this case a Thoroughbred, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, but also about the developments in treatment of that disease as a result of his demise. 

 

Alex Brown

Alex is English, though he seems to have taken a shine to American football, as I’ve rarely seen him without a Brett Favre shirt on. He’s a Thoroughbred exercise rider for such trainers as Barclay Tagg, Michael Dickenson and Steve Asmussen, except for now, when he’s a writer on book tour. He also found time between being perched on his toes, peering between the ears of a thundering Thoroughbred, to get an MBA at the University of Delaware. All very atypical exercise rider behavior, I assure you.

Alex went on to teach and work at the University of Delaware and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, arguably the most prestigious of Ivy League business schools. He kept a boot in the racing world while teaching Internet marketing at Delaware and working in admissions at Penn. It’s not just Ivy Leaguers that Alex has taught, though. He was the instructor of “Internet for First-Time Starters” on the backstretch at Woodbine, where he taught hotwalkers and grooms about a world well beyond the shedrow.

Alex worked for trainer Tim Wooley at the training center at Fair Hills, Md., at the same time Michael Matz was there with 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. When Barbaro was severely injured in the Preakness, Alex did what came naturally – he took to the internet to write. A website he’d established for Wooley became a heavily visited source of information about Barbaro.

Blogging as frequently at three times a day, Alex kept a growing audience of Barbaro fans posted on the ups and down of the horse’s attempt to heal. When Barbaro was euthanized because of laminitis in January 2007, 70,000 visitors were on the site, to get information, to grieve, to console and to seek consolation. 

With a professional interest in the behavior and evolution of group behavior, Brown now had quite a group on his hands. A huge following of people with comparable concerns – people who cared about horses, had been brought together by his words for the eight months of Barbaro’s struggle to live. The Wooley website morphed into www.alexbrownracing.com, as well as two Facebook pages with more than 11,000 friends. He’s got nearly 2,000 Twitter followers. I’ve never seen such a hard-used iPhone. The guy is plugged in. 

The people that coalesced on Alex’s site started calling themselves Friends of Barbaro (FOBs) and they set out to put their money where their mouths had been all those months. They’ve re-homed 3,700 horses of all breeds, Standardbreds included, from grim circumstances, raised more than $1.4 million dollars for laminitis research and equine welfare and adoption. Even still, five years after Barbaro’s injury, the discussion boards at Alex Brown Racing are active and productive.  

Alex returned to throwing a leg over a bunch of horses every morning, but he also started blogging for the New York Times. He started an ambitious project that would eventually entail 100 interviews  - a self-published book about Barbaro, “Greatness and Goodness: Barbaro and his Legacy.” 

Alex has been back and forth to every racetrack in the southeast United States, plus Oklahoma in between tornadoes, to sell and promote the book, which does not stop at the death of Barbaro.  Alex also talks about the outcomes that Barbaro inspired and which affect any horse enthusiast: increased awareness of the post-racing lives of horses, laminitis and why it is so difficult to treat and prevent. 

I highly recommend a trip to the Museum (www.harnessmuseum.com) to meet him to hear about the ripple effects of Barbaro’s life, and the hope for a cure and prevention of laminitis in all horses that may come to pass for the struggle of one horse. Alex will sign copies of his book for those that want to buy it, and a portion of each sale will go to a local horse rescue group that deals with Standardbreds.  After the talk, head on over to Goshen Historic Track (www.goshenhistorictrack.com) for opening day of matinee season. 

As always, I hope you’ll e-mail me with questions and comments. Is anyone out there?  Characters and those that defy categorization all welcome: ellen.harvey@ustrotting.com


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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.


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