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Monday, January 29, 2007

Let the Derby Trail Begin

- Two more American soldiers were killed in Iraq today; bombings and mortar attacks across Baghdad on Monday killed at least 21 people and wounded 67 others, Iraqi officials said. Five schoolgirls were killed and 21 wounded when their school was hit by insurgent mortar fire. In Washington, an incredible trial reveals the details of how our leaders marketed their lies to an eager press during the run-up to war. Chaos continues in Darfur, and millions of Americans struggle to make ends meet each day, many of whom don't have homes.

In Pennsylvania, Barbaro died. I imagine he wasn't the only horse to pass on today; who knows how many others died of injury or neglect. Or at the slaughterhouse. Yet Barbaro's death is a pretty big story; the 1,517 articles devoted to it that are available on Google News is far more than the number concerning any of the above. We've seen the amazing dedication of Dr. Richardson and the entire medical staff, and that of the owners who paid bills and frequent visits. And we saw how many people became so emotionally involved in the horse's daily medical reports, even if we thought some got a bit carried away.

I don't think the attention received by Barbaro should be so surprising, really. No matter how awful the current state of the globe is (and it almost always seems to be bad), amidst all of the senseless mass killings in Iraq and elsewhere that have become almost an afterthought on the evening news, human beings always seem to somehow have the capacity to embrace a single helpless living being, be it a kid stuck in a ditch, miners trapped under the earth, a cat in a tree, or, as in this case, a horse in distress.

Not just any horse of course, but a Derby winner.

Now, you can read hundreds of articles and columns today about how Barbaro was embraced by the public largely because of his dogged courage and determination to live, and certainly you didn't come here for more of that! I don't really agree that that's what is mainly behind the public outpouring of support. Of course, those qualities, along with his rare intelligence, certainly helped him live longer, which in turn earned him growing admiration, including some from people with far too much time on their hands. But we read stories everyday of people grimly hanging on to life, whether in war, lost on mountaintops, or fighting a disease. And the will to live is inherent in all living things, even, apparently, ducks.

And how many "lesser" racehorses that even we fans never hear of, similarly struck down by injury while performing for our benefit, exhibit just as much determination to survive, only to not make it off the racetrack?

Barbaro is the story that he is because he won the Kentucky Derby. I can't really imagine that, given the state of the sport in this country these days, that, other than through an extraordinary confluence of events (like Ruffian), any horse other than a Derby winner could ever be the subject of such intense national scrutiny (not to mention the effort to save him or her in the first place).

I don't think this is all bad, and I don't think that sadness should be the main order of the day. Barbaro fought on longer than anybody with any sense ever could have imagined; his plight should inspire the industry to continue its move towards safer surfaces, and the medical knowledge gained will hopefully lead to other horses being either saved, or spared an ultimately hopeless fight for survival. It was time, and Horse Heaven is certainly a better place, somewhere he can frolic around on four good legs, be eligible to participate in the annual Dead Derby Winners Dash, and do bourbon shots and shoot the shit with Joe Hirsch and Red Smith. [ed note - I seem to have killed off Joe Hirsch prematurely! Sorry man!]

And the fact that the Derby remains such an integral part of the American landscape shows that there's still a lot of life in the old sport, even if, as far as the average sports fan goes, it's currently largely confined to the first Saturday in May.

Barbaro demonstrated as well as anyone how important the race remains. In a little over two minutes, he went from an industry secret to a part of American folklore, one on which all eyes were focused two weeks later, and, for the wrong reasons, for the next eight months as well. I disagree with all of the commentators who are saying that Barbaro will be remembered more for his fight to live than for winning the Derby. As the years and decades wear on, I believe that few will remember the details of his medical struggles.

But he'll always be known as the 2006 Derby winner, one who won the race while undefeated, by a historically large margin, and, just maybe, the only horse since Needles in 1956 to win the Derby off a layoff of more than four weeks. When people watch the race, as I did myself several times today, they'll be impressed by what was a visually dazzling Derby win. I don't know if I'd go as far as Andy Beyer, who wrote that he is very likely the best American 3-year-old since Spectacular Bid [Washington Post], but he was certainly a great horse on Derby Day.

I have to admit that I've thus far purposely been playing down Derby fever, trying to turn my elitist nose up at all the hype, which is way too early. However, I think that an appropriate tribute to Barbaro would be to celebrate the race that made him a celebrity; and the race which keeps our sport very much alive in the national consciousness. There's been a fair amount of negativity about the Derby of late, including from yours truly. There's too much hype, too many horses touted in too many Haskin columns, far, far too much emphasis on a single race that can compromise many a promising horse's career. That's all true in my opinion. But the Derby is also all we got these days in terms of connecting with the public, and it naturally follows that it will, and must be a centerpiece in any effort to make horse racing a major sport again. And, after all, it really is the Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.

So thanks Barbaro, for your brilliance and determination, and may you rest in peace. And now, let the Derby Trail begin.


Anonymous said...

isn't joe hirsch still among us?

alan said...

It would seem so. I meant, er, y'know, like in the future sometime. :-\

Happy Ticket said...

Well said, Alan. (Would someone PLEASE hire this guy as a columnist/reporter?)

Mike E said...

a smashing epitaph. Thanks