LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – Catherine Kane never met paid much attention to horse racing. It simply wasn’t her thing.

Then, watching the Preakness three years ago, she cringed when Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro pulled up a couple hundred yards into the second leg of the Triple Crown.

The sight of the dazzling bay colt’s shattered right hind leg hanging awkwardly as jockey Edgar Prado tried to keep him calm touched the Franciscan sister from Vineland, N.J. in a way she never expected.

“I know this sounds weird, but I feel like he called to me while he was standing there waiting for help,” Kane said. “From that minute on I have just been so bonded with him.”

Kane isn’t the only one.

Nearly three years after the injury that eventually lead to his death in January 2007, Barbaro has become an icon to thousands, many of them non-racing fans like Kane who were moved by his valiant struggle for survival.

They’ve inundated owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson with cards, flowers and memorial Web sites, a wave of public support that has hardly faded with time.

Less than a week before this year’s Run for the Roses they made one final journey to pay their respects to the horse they love and the people who made sure Barbaro is remembered for more than the tragedy that ended his brilliant career.

The track unveiled a 1,500-pound bronze statue of Barbaro on Sunday. The sculpture, created by Alexa King, shows Barbaro flying down the track with all four feet off the ground as he carries Prado to glory. The statue, which has Barbaro’s ashes in the base, is placed outside a gate at the venerable track so the public can visit him at any time.

“I think we got it right,” Gretchen Jackson said.

The unveiling is the final chapter of a story that began the second Barbaro took that fateful bad step early in the Preakness. During his eight-month battle at New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa., the public outpouring overwhelmed the center as fans sent treats, flowers and well-wishes.

Melissa Nobles of Tallahassee, Fla., was visiting her son at Army basic training in Georgia during Barbaro’s rehab but found time to monitor the horse’s progress.

“He was almost like a person, he felt like family,” Nobles said.

It’s why Nobles decided to send the horse an e-mail – the only one she says she’s ever sent in her life – to let him know that he was in her prayers.

“I could care less for (e-mailing) people, but I made sure he got my e-mail,” she said. “He was that special.”

In a way, Barbaro may be more influential in death than he ever could have been in life. His breakdown put the racing industry under the spotlight, and in the last three years it has taken unprecedented steps to address the sport’s shortcomings.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association created the Safety & Integrity Alliance last fall, designed to make sure tracks are following recommended safety guidelines. Churchill Downs became the first track in the country to be accredited by the alliance last month.

There’s been just as much movement off the track. The Barbaro Memorial Fund has helped save over 2,900 horses from slaughter while raising more than $1 million for laminitis research.

“I think right now everybody is doing their best to stop injuries like this,” said trainer Michael Matz. “Whether it’s laminitis or breakdowns on the track, there are so many people trying to correct this situation and I do believe racing is better for it.”

It’s a good start, but there’s still plenty of work to be done, Gretchen Jackson said. She remains a staunch opponent of trainers putting their horses on medication.

“I think it’s a positive and perhaps it is safer, but I don’t think you can really say it’s safe when you’re running horses that are on drugs,” she said. “It does interfere with the truth.”

The other truth, Jackson knows, is that she had a special horse with a unique ability to connect with people, even if some of the outpouring has been a little over the top.

Kane made three trips to New Bolton during Barbaro’s stay in hopes of getting a glimpse. She never did, but she would bring the staff there coffee and doughnuts, thinking if the staff was in a good mood Barbaro’s treatment would be even better.

Dr. Dean Richardson, who oversaw Barbaro’s rehab at New Bolton, couldn’t help but laugh when talking about the massive wave of support created by his most famous patient’s fight.

“Some of you are flat-out crazy, and you know who you are, or maybe you don’t, I don’t know,” Richardson told the crowd. “The fact is these are people who really feel it from the heart and have acted on their feelings. It’s been remarkable to even be a part of this great story.”

Many of the fans wore either green or blue Barbaro shirts, some with “FOB” on them to signify they were a member of the “Fans of Barbaro.” The global fan club has become an aggressive advocate of horse safety and welfare research.

Kane – wearing a blue and green rubber bracelet with a pair of Barbaro-inspired quotes “Live the Moment” and “Just Be A Winner” on it – donates money to several animal welfare organizations each month and has no plans of stopping.

“I think he had some sort of spiritual or mystical presence about him,” she said. “There is a lot people can learn from him. He accepted his situation and set an example human beings can follow. There’s going to be a time when we’re not healthy, we’re not as strong as we were initially. He told us to keep on going.”

AP-ES-04-26-09 1459EDT

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