On Barbaro: The Horse That You Hold Dear
By: Jonathan David Morris
Most people don’t care about thoroughbred horse racing.
Three Saturdays each spring, countless Americans gather ’round to watch a bunch of horses they’ve never ridden or even seen up close in person compete in the Triple Crown races. We curl our toes and clench our lips. Our hearts beat quickly. And for an annual total of roughly six minutes, most of us do seem to care.
But most of us don’t really care about thoroughbred horse racing. We just think we care about thoroughbred horse racing.
What we really care about is Triple Crown racing. Which, as we all know, is the only racing that counts.
When a horse by the name of Barbaro won this year’s Kentucky Derby in decisive, almost arrogant fashion a couple of weeks ago, all the familiar “Will this be the year?” Triple Crown talk started up full force again. No horse since Affirmed in ’78 (or was it Yastrzemski in ’67.?) has worn the proverbial three-pronged headpiece, and every year America gets behind whichever horse seems like he could.
Had Barbaro simply tried and failed like so many others, his story would be. well, like so many others. He would be this year’s version of last year’s “whichever horse almost won it last year.” On May 20th, however, his story took a much different turn.
The stage was set at Pimlico Race Course for the 131st running of the Preakness Stakes. With a buzz in the air and the race about to begin, Barbaro broke through his gate a moment too early, and had to be re-corralled.
A minute later, the race finally-officially-got underway. And the planets, it seemed, prepared to align.
Within seconds, however, Barbaro stumbled, and fractured his right hind leg.
In an instant, his run at Triple Crown history was over. His racing career itself was over. And like any horse with a leg injury, his life was suddenly in jeopardy.
I have to be honest. After watching Barbaro’s fate unfold at the Preakness, I was somewhat depressed the rest of the evening. I’ve been following all the updates on his condition since it happened, and I was relieved to learn he did well in surgery. At one point the night of the Preakness, I actually found myself praying for this horse to survive his injuries. I know I’m not the only one who did this. Countless Americans have vowed to keep Barbaro in their prayers.
All this sympathy is good, in my opinion. I’m glad that it’s happening. But when you stop and think about it, it’s really pretty weird.
I mean, here we are, praying to the same God credited with creating the universe-and for what? A horse most of us have never ridden or even seen up close in person? Why would we do this?
And more importantly: If most of us don’t really care about horse racing, what gives us the right-when it comes to Barbaro-to honestly, truthfully care?
It would be easy to cast off these feelings as collective guilt here. Human beings routinely force horses to run around in circles for no real reason. Deep down, most of us probably realize this is bizarre. But I think what it really comes down to is the same question I find myself asking every time I watch horse racing, which is: “Do the horses enjoy it?” Obviously, that question is impossible to answer. But if you looked at Barbaro’s face when he broke through the gate too early, it really looked like he cared about winning. He probably didn’t, but after breaking his leg-and shattering the dream-a minute later, all that mattered was he looked like he did.
In that moment, Barbaro wasn’t a horse anymore. He was a boxer trying to beat the ten count. And he was more than that. He was anyone who ever wanted something so badly that they totally screwed things up.
Am I blowing this way the hell out of proportion? Absolutely. But that’s the whole point. The Triple Crown, itself, is blown out of proportion. Sports are blown out of proportion. So are most things we hear on the news. There’s a reason for this. And in case you haven’t noticed, it’s because life is pointless. Not that we’re necessarily here for no reason-that’s not what I’m saying. But who among us hasn’t felt useless at some point? Who hasn’t opened their eyes in the morning and said to themselves, “Again?”
People fear change, but they hate the inevitable. That’s why we root for things that aren’t supposed to happen. Sometimes this means rooting for a Triple Crown horse. Other times, it means rooting against Barry Bonds making homerun history.
Barbaro surviving is another thing we root for. After all, it’s against the odds. Most horses who suffer his injuries are euthanized right on the track.
All things considered, horse racing exists for the sake of gamblers. But all things considered, all of us gamble everyday when we get out of bed. We bet on our lives having some kind of meaning. We look ourselves in the mirror, and look like we care if we win. In the end, most of us can identify more with all those nameless, faceless horses who get euthanized. We toil in anonymity. And we die largely underreported deaths.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about Barbaro. Quite the opposite. I think we should. It just means that caring about Barbaro means caring about more than Barbaro. In a way, it means caring enough to keep caring-whatever the odds are.
So feel better, Barbaro. And hey: Get well soon.
Jonathan David Morris is a Staff Writer for The New Media Alliance. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.
Columns by this author can be read regularly on TheRealityCheck.org.