America's Pony

by Phoebe Kate Foster

6 February 2007

Despite a short career in a dying sport, Barbaro brought something special to a nation suffering a widespread poverty of hope and deficit of inspiration.

On 29 January 2007, after eight months of loyal fans keeping vigil as he fought the good fight, the world lost a beloved celebrity. His passing was not just a footnote in the annals of a busy news day; it was a lead story, beating out the war in Iraq, a leak at the CIA, the economy, and Hillary Clinton’s presidential aspirations. In a televised news conference, the physician who was with him at his death could barely contain his grief. The hospital where he spent his last days has been flooded with sympathy cards and emails and flowers. Eyewitnesses report that when people across the country heard the news on radio or TV or by word of mouth, they openly wept in public.

It is all the more remarkable that the object of such media importance and public devotion was a horse named Barbaro.

“What’s the big deal?” cynics scoff. “He was just an animal.”

Yes, he was only an animal. Yes, as superstars go, he was just a flash in the pan, an overnight success who paradoxically achieved his greatest success by failing. His entire career spanned only a couple of years and he died at a very young age (four). But in his lifetime, his fan base rivaled that of non-equine counterparts, and he never once let his devotees down. Not since Hurricane Katrina has the diverse populace of the US become so personally involved with a catastrophe that didn’t affect them directly, nor has there been such an outpouring of support.

It’s almost tempting to dismiss this as much ado about nothing, fueled by anthropomorphists, small children, soft-in-the-head sentimentalists, religious nuts, and people who need to get a life. But the truth in this case is in the numbers, and an extraordinary number of people remained riveted by the fate of this racehorse until the bitter end. In reality, the phenomenon of Barbaro goes well beyond the status of freakish cult and deep into the zeitgeist of modern America.

On 20 May 2006, a handsome and spunky bay colt broke his leg in the opening moments of the Preakness, the second race of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. Up until then, Barbaro had been familiar only to racing buffs following his career. His record was impressive: seven races run, seven races won, including the Kentucky Derby. It looked like the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame had a legend in the making, an unbeatable horse the likes of which had not been seen in years, maybe decades.

But the hopes of racing aficionados were short-lived. The injuries to Barbaro’s right hind leg were catastrophic and all but irreparable: two bones broken, a third shattered into more than 20 pieces, and a dislocated joint. While thousands watched in Pimlico’s grandstand and on television, the lame colt gamely tried to complete the race as his jockey, Edgar Prado, struggled to rein him in. The scene was gut wrenching and heartbreaking. Although a notable piece of horseflesh named Bernardini won the race, it was Barbaro, with his life-threatening injuries, who became a household name and the center of an American obsession.

Despite the fact that Barbaro’s chances of survival were virtually nonexistent, owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson decided to attempt the impossible. Rather than having him euthanized trackside, standard practice for horses with injuries as devastating as Barbaro’s, they chose to transport him to the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center for Large Animals for treatment. Fixing Barbaro would be like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, and saving him from the post-op complications nothing less than a miracle. Nonetheless, the Jacksons were willing to take on these odds. That one quixotic decision turned what would have been a sad but soon forgotten racing moment into a cause célèbre.

For eight long months, Barbaro was under the care of Dr. Dean Richardson at New Bolton. The media faithfully chronicled Barbaro’s ups and downs. In response to overwhelming public concern, New Bolton Center posted regular bulletins on their website, and numerous online sources kept fans updated daily. Thousands of cards, letters and e-mails from every state, as well as from overseas, poured into the veterinary hospital in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Well-wishers deluged Barbaro with gift baskets of apples and carrots, handmade blankets, bouquets of flowers, peppermints (a favorite of his) and other treats, and kept the staff at New Bolton supplied with human goodies, too. Countless schoolchildren sent him get-well wishes. Fans wrote songs, poems, and even Christmas carols for him. He received Christmas trees and Christmas stockings stuffed with surprises. A bride and groom invited him to their wedding.

His followers put up signs around the grounds at New Bolton with messages of encouragement. He became the focus of online chat rooms and blogs. People publicly credited Barbaro for saving their marriages, helping them regain their faith, and giving them courage to battle cancer. Groups formed to pray for him and stage candlelight vigils. “Believe in Barbaro” was their mantra. Perhaps the most profound gift to the horse, his owners, and the New Bolton staff was an American flag that had flown in combat zones from special military forces who had been wounded in action. Along with the flag came a plaque celebrating the “American spirit, the ability to overcome insurmountable odds in the face of adversity.”

Despite Americans’ renowned pluck and grit, hidebound dogmas of self-reliance and success, and indomitable pioneering spirit, we are a desperate and insecure people. We may be the premier country in the world, but our position is tenuous—and beneath all our bravado, we know it. Our problems—personal, national and global—seem too close, too insoluble, and at times insurmountable for comfort. We are the living embodiment of W. H. Auden’s Age of Anxiety, casting about for something to believe in, something to help us through the long, dark night of the post-9/11 era.

It is not the first time in our history that we’ve collectively turned to an animal to lift our sagging spirits. Sixty years before Barbaro, another racehorse became an inspiration to the American people. As the country struggled with the devastation of the Great Depression, Seabiscuit buoyed national morale, reminding a burdened and overwhelmed populace that underdogs can and do beat the odds and win. His popularity and appeal was so universal that he received the most newspaper coverage of any public figure in 1938, leaving President Franklin Roosevelt and a host of Hollywood big names in the dust to run a poor second.

While our economy isn’t in the condition it was in the ‘30s, we are suffering from a different and even more serious kind of privation. We have a widespread poverty of hope, a deficit of inspiration. Our contemporary idols have such well-publicized and distasteful Achilles heels that we are more likely to pity or pillory them than lionize them. Do we really want to have more proof that Britney Spears needs parenting classes or watch the Knicks and the Nuggets slug it out on the court? Unless we’ve taken a big enough dose of Prozac or had several stiff drinks, our political leaders come off as uninspiring at best, indictable at worst. We drag ourselves to the polls to vote not for the best candidate but for the lesser of two evils, realizing that regardless of which party’s lever we pull, nothing will really change—except, maybe, for the worse.

Barbaro was the perfect icon for us. He didn’t put his hoof in his mouth every time he opened it. Not only was he was good-looking and highly photogenic from start to finish, but he was well behaved: he didn’t make headlines for outrageous behavior or breaking the law. He wasn’t a public embarrassment or a laughingstock or the lurid subject of scandal sheets. He embodied the characteristics so often lacking in our human icons: nobility, courage, dignity, grace, good manners and greatness of spirit. Until the final moments of his life, when a series of setbacks made his pain level unmanageable, he was an outstandingly cooperative patient with a strong will to beat the medical odds. What more can we ask from our heroes?

Let’s admit it, many of us in childhood, whether we grew up in a city high-rise or a suburban split-level or at the end of the rural postal-delivery route, secretly wished to own a horse. We longed to have the Lone Ranger’s Silver, our friend Flicka, National Velvet‘s The Pie, Misty of Chincoteague, the Black Stallion, Gandalf’s Shadowfax. Barbaro became America’s pony, and we mourn his loss as if he’d been our very own. 

Barbaro’s plight has provided the public some human heroes worthy of admiration, as well. Though touted as the sport of kings, racing is a rough and often callous business that views horses as a valuable but expendable commodity. Barbaro showed the world that racing has a heart, and a big one at that. No one will forget the much-publicized photo of Barbaro’s tiny jockey, Edgar Prado, supporting the weight a 1,200-pound horse to keep him from further injury until the track ambulance arrived. “If [my] tears could heal a wound,” Prado said during Barbaro’s long fight for life, “Barbaro would be healed by now.” Owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson’s deep commitment to their horse and courageous efforts to save him are nothing short of extraordinary.

The intense personal involvement of Dr. Richardson and the New Bolton staff with their patient will long be remembered as one of equine medicine’s shining moments. Richardson’s aggressive and innovative techniques in tackling Barbaro’s case have broken new ground in equine care, which hopefully will benefit all horses in the near future. Gregory L. Ferraro, director of the Center for Equine Health at the University of California-Davis summed it up best:

“I think the veterinary profession, from owners, to trainers, to doctors, should be proud of the way that horse was treated. The day of the injury, there wasn’t a vet out there who thought he had much more than a nil chance of surviving. The fact that they came very close to saving him is an example for other vets to follow.”

That the patient died, in this case, is not an indication of failure. Barbaro is not unlike the early organ-transplant patients, who survived only a few days yet were the means for greater knowledge and advancements.

Barbaro’s legacy to his sport may well be far-reaching. His ordeal has roused much-needed attention to issues of track safety and traditionally accepted racing practices. Statistically, for every 22 races run, one horse suffers a fatal injury—a shockingly high figure that begs the question, “What’s going on here?” Across America, race courses have started to switch from dirt to PolyTrack, a synthetic surface that is kinder to the delicate feet and fragile bones of thoroughbreds. Growing concern focuses on the racing of two-year-olds, whose physical immaturity could render them more vulnerable to stress-related injuries, both immediately and later on. Proponents also advocate shortening the length of races to save undue wear and tear on the animals. It’s even been suggested that racing cease to be a year-round sport and have a limited season like other sports in order to give its participants a necessary rest.

Barbaro will not be forgotten. Odds are his story will become a book, perhaps a movie. We are a nation that loves our animals and believes—or wishes to believe—in miracles. We want to believe that “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” Barbaro certainly played the game as well as any athlete has. And like a good philosopher, he reminds us that we are all mortal creatures. We have a beginning and (although we don’t like to think about it) we have an end. And it’s okay.

Rest well, Barbaro. You’ve earned it.

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