--by Mike Murray
Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro is dead. For most of us, this is a sad day. But maybe you’re one of those who don’t know what all the fuss is about. Perhaps you’re confused because Barbaro was, after all, only a horse. A horse who, to your way of thinking, was little more than a pawn in the gambling industry.
I understand why you might feel that way. There is no doubt that many of the people who actively follow horseracing are seduced by its “gaming” aspect. My dad was one of those sad souls.
On the day that John F. Kennedy visited my Cleveland neighborhood via motorcade in ’62 or ’63, I was unable to join the eager crowd that lined the street near our home. I was otherwise occupied.
I was busy following my daily routine: going to the local cigar shop to pick up a Racing Form and a Scratch Sheet for my pop. Blessed though he was with abnormally high cerebral capacity, my dad was nevertheless dumb as a post about some things. Gambling was one of those things.
So I missed seeing the president. As small compensation, I think I received a quarter.
We didn’t always have telephone service when I was a kid. We often couldn’t afford it, owing largely to my dad’s many indiscretions (gambling among them). During those times when we did have service, the phone seemed primarily to serve as a mechanism for communicating with bookies.
I well remember my father’s irritation at having to wait for the party line to clear so that he could make a wager. (Youngsters, ask your parents to explain what a party line is. If they’re younger than forty, ask your grandparents.)
My recollection is that my father’s weakness was such that when we were without telephone service, he would sometimes make my mother go out to a public booth to place his bets. (I can only imagine her anguish at being forced to participate.)
Of the many circumstances that consigned my mother, my siblings, and me to a humble lifestyle, my dad’s addiction to betting on “the ponies” ranked near the top. As a consequence, I grew up with a near-hatred for the Sport of Kings.
I had a change of heart in the years following my dad’s death. Just as I ultimately came to understand him and his demons a little better and to see him in different light, so too did I view the sport of horseracing in a new way.
I came to appreciate the beauty and grace of the magnificent thoroughbreds. I came to appreciate their competitiveness, their pride, their spirit. Perhaps the fact that I, too, competed as a runner for several decades factored in. Perhaps I felt a kinship.
Whatever the reason, there was no denying it: I eventually had to admit that there is much that is compelling about those marvelous athletes on four hooves. I found myself tuning in to the major televised events (Derby, Belmont, Preakness), and to a few lesser ones as well.
I have only rarely visited racetracks in person – usually on the occasions of fundraisers – but when I have I’ve been awestruck. If it weren’t for the intense fear instilled in me at having experienced my father’s penchant for frittering away what little money we had, I would probably be a regular.
Many people share some degree of affection for the horses and for the sport. Some are casual observers, some are intensely involved. But every now and then, a horse comes along that stirs up a storm.
I recall Cordner Nelson’s book, The Jim Ryun Story. In it, he tells of a track meet at which the young Ryun competed. (Ryun, as many know, was the first high-schooler to break four minutes for the mile. He went on to win an Olympic silver medal, and to set numerous American and world records.)
Nelson wrote of a woman who didn’t know much about the sport and nothing at all about the lanky, teenaged Ryun. But when he roared powerfully down the home straight, leaving the field in his wake, she was driven to fanaticism. She exclaimed, “I don’t know who that boy is, but he made me get up and cheer for him.”
Like Ryun – and like Smarty Jones, Seabiscuit, and a handful of other horses over the years – Barbaro brought us to our feet. He made fans of nearly all.
When an athlete like that comes along, we are captivated. Such creatures aren’t motivated by money. Neither do they give a fig for fame. They compete for the sheer thrill of it. If they weren’t part of an organized sport, they’d still be racing. Like their ancestors before them, they’d be taking on all comers – regardless of setting or circumstance.
And as is true of sled dogs who are properly treated, the only way to break their spirit is to separate them from what they love to do. Slicing away a horse’s bridle is akin to cutting a sled dog from its harness: in both cases, a heart is severed along with the leather.
So it was with Barbaro. It was plain for all to see that he was a champion. Sure, he was fast. But that’s not what made him special to casual fans like me. We are like the woman that Cordner Nelson wrote about. We are not railbirds; we are not possessed of deep knowledge or of special attachment to the sport. But the spirited Barbaro made us get up and cheer, just the same.
We don’t know what elements factored into Barbaro’s purchase by people whose incomes and lifestyles dwarf our own. We suppose it involved some combination of investment, pursuit of glory, and love of horses and the sport.
What we do know is that they put that magnificent animal in front of us, and they showed us his power and courage. They made us care. Most of us never placed a bet in our lives. Most of us never will. But we invested something more important than money in Barbaro.
After witnessing his effort in the Kentucky Derby, we pulled hard for him at Belmont. And after he succeeded there, we anxiously anticipated the Preakness. Would he win the Triple Crown?
When he fell back in that final race, we were disappointed. When it became clear that he was lame, we worried. And when we learned that his leg was shattered, our spirits were as crushed as his bones.
Some of us were especially devastated, aware as we were of the fate that typically befalls horses who sustain such injuries. We realized that in most cases, “putting the animal down” is in its interest. At least, that’s what they say. (And, having witnessed the terrible spectacle of the famous filly who thrashed about in an agonized and crazed state years ago, I have little reason to doubt them.)
Still, we hoped that for a horse like Barbaro – whose jockey was able to pull him up and to bring him to a calm state so quickly after his injury – heroic medical procedures would be attempted. After all, they sold us on the notion that Barbaro was no ordinary horse. They made us see that he was special. Now that his financial value had been markedly reduced, we hoped that he remained precious to his owners.
We needn’t have worried.
By all accounts, they did everything possible for Barbaro. Without question, they did considerably more than is customary in such cases. And In the end, they did what they had to do. No matter how much others loved Barbaro, it seems clear that his people (“owners” seems too feeble a term) loved him most.
They did all they could for their beloved colt, for a beloved friend. And they did something very important for the sport of horseracing, too. They proved that – for some of those involved, at least – it’s not just about money. It’s not just about return on investment.
If it had been, all bets would have been off. Many casual fans would have turned away. As it is, hearts temporarily heavy, we’ll be back.
Rest in peace, Barbaro.
Copyright © 2007 Michael F. Murray -- All rights reserved.