January 30, 2007

Barbaro, RIP

"Have you given the horse strength, or clothed his neck with a quivering mane? Have you made him able to leap forward like a locust? His majestic snorting is something to hear! He paws the earth and rejoices in his strength, and when he goes to war, he is unafraid and does not run away though the arrows rattle against him, or the flashing spear and javelin. Fiercely he paws the ground and rushes forward into battle when the trumpet blows. At the sound of the bugle he shouts, 'Aha!' He smells the battle when far away. He rejoices at the shouts of battle and the roar of the captain's commands." Job 40:19-25, The Living Bible.

He wasn't a warhorse, but he fought like one. With his squire and surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson, at his side, Barbaro survived eight months battling two of the most terrible enemies a racehorse can face--broken bones and laminitis. He endured more than twenty surgeries and procedures, including the five-hour initial operation to insert twenty-seven screws into his shattered right hind leg. Ironically, those bones had healed. It was the laminitis in his left hind (80 percent of the hoof had to be removed), which in his last hours had shown signs of manifesting in the two front legs as well, that eventually killed him.

By all accounts, he was a calm, model and tractable patient. He had to be a very intelligent horse, to endure all the anesthesia, slings, pins, bandages, painkillers and scalpels, and the being lowered in and out of the recovery pool where he would come to after his surgeries. For a while he was being grazed outside and walked every day, though he had a frightening, lopsided gait. His owners never knew if he would recover sufficiently to stand at stud. The fact of his being alive after such horrific injuries would have been enough.

I recorded Barbaro's Kentucky Derby, and replayed the race's climatic stretch drive several times. I've been following horse racing for years (Secretariat and Ruffian are my two favorite horses, but Cigar was the first racehorse I really fixated on), and like everyone else, I wondered if Barbaro could be the one to finally break the Triple Crown jinx. The sight of him roaring down the stretch, ears pricked, reaching for that finish line as effortlessly as a free-flying falcon, entranced me. The dreams of the first Saturday in May are always delicate, gauzy things, riding on the fragile legs of young horses (perhaps too young), but Barbaro's no-nonsense performance made them solid and real.

Two weeks later, I taped the Preakness. I intended to watch it, of course, but I was caught up in my mundane human life that day--I don't even remember what happened. At any rate, I sat down at my computer that night with the telecast still waiting on my DVD. I hit the news pages first, and there, in bright terrifying living color, were the photographs of Barbaro's breakdown during the Preakness.

I never watched the program. The next day I erased it from the DVD.

I followed Barbaro's fight all the weeks since, and was impressed by his grittiness and tenacity. I never sent an e-mail, flowers, or candy, but I can understand those who did. (Hell, if I could spend five hundred dollars trying to save my doomed cat, I can sympathize with his owners' paying tens of thousands of dollars to save their horse.) Unfortunately, caring for a horse is a lot more complicated than a cat. In the end, even the genius of Dr. Richardson could not pull off the miracle.

So the vision of what could have been is gone, and as happens far too often in Thoroughbred racing, another four-legged warrior succumbs. The only consolation we have (for those who believe in the Rainbow Bridge) is that at the end of the road, Man o'War, Secretariat and Ruffian were waiting to welcome Barbaro home.

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