February 2, 2007
It is worth pondering why there was such an outpouring of sympathy for Barbaro, last year's Kentucky Derby winner, during his long struggle to survive a fractured hind leg -- and why so many expressions of condolence were addressed to his owners after they had him euthanized Monday to spare him terminal suffering.
Part of the answer has to do with a love of horses that takes root in diverse people at different stages of life. Any boy or girl who ever had the luck to ride and care for horses will be inclined to grieve for the loss of Barbaro. And even adults who missed having horses in their childhood possess the innate capacity for compassion with all sentient beings.
But there is another explanation for the emotional force of Barbaro's story, something close to the spirit of literature. Conscious or not, reasoned or not, the millions who watched Barbaro striding in triumph down the homestretch at Churchill Downs in May were taking part in a ritual metaphor of cyclical renewal.
This is the essence of thoroughbred racing, at least when the best horses compete in the classic races. When all the ephemera of betting and marketing are peeled away, to see a colt like Barbaro re enact the feats of a Secretariat or a Man O' War is to share in a celebration of the striving after excellence.
So there was all the more cause for grief when, two weeks after Barbaro's awesome performance in the Kentucky Derby, the colt who seemed destined to join the select roster of Triple Crown winners fractured his right hind leg in the first furlong of the Preakness. Suddenly, the ever-present peril that racing folk understand only too well -- the doom that comes with a single bad step -- descended on Barbaro of the infinite promise.
It was an unforgettable, mournful tableau. Barbaro's accomplished jockey, Edgar Prado, (who started his ascent to stardom here at Suffolk Downs) reined in the distressed colt, dismounted and grasped the reins, trying to keep Barbaro from doing any more damage to his shattered right hind leg. In a tick of time, the allegory of excellence had become a tale of suffering and loss.
In the intervening eight months, while caring veterinarians and surgeons tried to save Barbaro, his fans hoped he might survive as a stallion to pass his brilliance on to future generations. When he was put down mercifully Monday, his death became an allegory of unfulfilled potential.
But the cycle of renewal goes on. This weekend in Florida, three-year-old colts will run in the Holy Bull Stakes, the first Derby prep Barbaro won last year. Each new season invites the appearance of another Barbaro.