31 January 2007

Why America Loved Barbaro

If Barbaro is buried at Churchill Downs, as he should be, fans of the fallen hero will finally have a place for positive reflection for their grief. Floral tributes will dot his gravesite, cards marked with the crooked handwriting of youth, photographs of the colt trouncing his overmatched peers. They will mourn, but they will also know that Barbaro rests at the site of his greatest triumph, his dominating victory in the 132nd Kentucky Derby. Hopefully, this allows some to forget all that came after he stood in the Winners' Circle with the rose garland across his back, seemingly unbeatable. Hopefully, when his name is mentioned, most will remember the Derby, not the wildly depressing sequence of events that followed it

But my sense is that this will simply not be possible. His gruesome injury on the third Saturday of last May, and the very public struggle to keep him alive in the eight months after have left an indelible mark on the public consciousness. His name will never fit in with the other Derby winners on the collectors' glasses, as a Triple Crown winner, or a horse who faded into mediocrity, or a horse who never seemed to generate enough interest for anyone to remember him. No, instead Barbaro will serve as a martyr, a sad reminder of the ugly intersection between mortality and sport that we would rather not visit. It is bad news for horse racing, a fledgling industry whose mad scientist-like obsession with potential and bloodlines often hijacks the careers of its greatest stars. There is a troubling irony in the notion that when this philosophy of eschewing the present for the future is finally reversed, when a promising thoroughbred sits on the cusp of legend, that potential is unrealized because of something far worse than greed. At least an owner's decision to whisk a horse to the breeding shed in his prime is self-inflicted and, as we have seen with the case of Barbaro, sickly self-aware of equine fragility. At least most of horse racing's bad breaks involve a career-ending injury, or a failed Triple Crown bid where the media darling loses to a better horse. In this instance, only cruel fate is responsible.

It is this cruel fate that lies at the heart of the public fascination with Barbaro. In a society where tragedy is often romanticized after it is mourned, Barbaro's death in action, "with his boots on," as the old westerns say, grabs attention because it is so utterly inconceivable in most other sports. His disturbing breakdown in front of millions is not something we can ever envision in anything other than NASCAR, and that sport has showered itself in polarizing, red-state righteousness to the point of box office parody. Horse racing deals with a disconnect that is truly unique in that its stars are not human; they are majestic but vulnerable creatures, bearing their half-ton bodies on little more than skeletal toothpicks. That the horses ultimately control the outcome is absurd to some, beautiful to others. But their lack of profundity is paradoxically appealing, for horses do not have the despicable qualities of humans that seem to manifest themselves in sports all too often: greed, corruption, violence, sexual assault. The Duke lacrosse and Genarlow Jones cases are compelling human interest stories at best, examples of legal injustice and ballyhooed media mistreatment at worst. At their core, however, are moral issues, questions of accountability, tinges of the decadence that can sometimes define human nature. Media coverage of Barbaro hinged on the survival of the pure, egoless animal itself, thus his fight was a welcome diversion from the normal sports world. The end result, of course, was sad, and reverence will now follow. Will the reverence be too much? It all depends on who you ask, whether or not the sport’s disconnect leaves you thrilled or confused. No one can argue, though, that he was an extraordinary talent, then an extraordinary tragedy, and these two traits have assured him eternal fame.

And now the Derby Trail begins again, and the class of 2007 is faced with the unenviable burden of trying to distract fans from Barbaro’s death, and despair and pessimism reign where there is normally excitement. Here’s hoping that this is the year that the Triple Crown drought finally ends. If I visit Barbaro’s grave site this summer in an obligatory pilgrimage to the track, I want to remember him as one of the most talented horses of his generation, not as a symbol of a sport confined by unfulfilled expectations and defined by heartbreak.

7 comments:

HAK said...

A very, very fine post, Bullwinkle. I am impressed, and though my feelings remain the same on Barbaro, you have, in just a few paragraphs, shown me a side of horse racing that heretofore was unknown to me.

Well fought, friend, well fought. I lay my sword down. For now.

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