Barbaro, The Heart In the Winner's Circle

By Jane Smiley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Nine years ago, I had a thoroughbred mare who came down with colic in the night, and was too far gone to save by the time she was found at 6 a.m. After she was euthanized, I remember staring at her body, which was stretched out in the grass, running my hands over her. Her coat was shining. Her haunch was rounded and firm. Her feet and legs were perfect. Only that one thing had been wrong, that twist in her gut, but it was enough, and it killed her. So it is with all horses.

They are engineered so close to the margins of what is physically possible that when one thing fails, it can cause the failure of the whole animal.

So it was with Barbaro, who was euthanized yesterday. When we saw his pictures over the last months, his ears were up, he was attentive and beautiful and interested. He looked pretty good, except for those casts.

His vets warned us all along that the odds were against him, but we didn't really believe them. They had hope, too. How could a horse who appeared so full of life break his leg and be so suddenly close to death? His head was fine. His back was fine. His lungs and heart and chest were fine. In fact, after a while, his broken leg was fairly fine. It was another leg that was so worrisome, since the weight of his body constantly bearing down on the delicate structures inside his foot eventually damaged and destroyed them.

A horse's hoof is wondrous structure -- the outside horn is lined with delicate membranes and blood vessels that feed and support the bones of the foot. The bones of the foot are analogous to a person's fingertips, since a horse's knee is analogous to a person's wrist. The racehorse carries a thousand pounds at 35 to 40 miles per hour using a few slender bones supported by an apparatus of ligaments and tendons that have no analogues in human anatomy. Every part of the system depends on every other part. What happened to Barbaro was that the engineering couldn't take it. When it was right, as in the Kentucky Derby, it was perfectly right, and when it became wrong, it became irredeemably wrong.

Some observers have been angered by the outpouring of sympathy toward Barbaro, but there is something extra large about the death of a horse.

And the death of a thoroughbred seems to me to be even more shocking, because thoroughbreds have been bred to press on and prevail where other breeds of horse throw in the towel. When we saw Barbaro in last May's Kentucky Derby fly away from the field so gracefully and effortlessly, he was doing something thoroughbreds have been bred to do for 300 years -- to sense the encroaching fatigue of three-quarters of a mile at top speed and want only to run faster, to push ahead and take the lead.

We say that thoroughbreds have "blood," meaning the DNA of desert Arab horses, and "heart," meaning fortitude, desire and competitive spirit.

It was heart that we saw in Barbaro, not only on Derby Day, but also on Preakness Day, when he stood injured in the middle of the track, touching his toe to the ground and snatching it up again, somehow impatient, somehow not truly aware of the pain, somehow still ready to get going.

I watched the Preakness with some lifelong racing people. When Barbaro was injured, we turned the TV off. All of us had seen it before; everyone who loves racing has seen it all too many times. It is the paradox of racing. His dynamic beauty and his exceptional heart were gifts Barbaro inherited from his racing forebears, who had the luck and toughness to run and win and prove themselves worthy of reproducing.

And then, during his medical saga, he showed that he was intelligent, too. According to a friend of mine who talked to trainer Michael Matz in the summer, Barbaro knew when he needed some pain relief -- he would stand by the sling and shake it until they put him in it, and when he was tired of it, he would shake himself so that it rattled, signaling he was ready to be taken out. And then he would go to his stall and lie down.

Did he want to survive? It seemed as though he did.

In a great racehorse, the heart and mind do the running, and the body tries to hold up.

Yes, to those who don't care about horses, terrible things are happening all over the world these days, and they demand from many people an unprecedented level of endurance, but we horse lovers say: This, too? That this beautiful and innocent animal should also die?

When I think of Barbaro, I like to think also of some of the tough ones -- John Henry, Seabiscuit, a horse I bred a mare to once named Loyal Pal. Among the three of them, they ran hundreds of times. They managed to avoid the bad steps and the bad luck, to go to the races as if a race were a trot in the park, coming back afterward to a bucket of grain and a long nap. Sometimes, thousands of fans thrilled to their exploits. Sometimes, the only ones watching were the owner, the trainer and a few punters. Like Barbaro, they did it because they were born and bred to do it, because a thoroughbred loves to run, and because they didn't know what it meant not to keep on trying.

Jane Smiley is the author of "Horse Heaven," "A Year at the Races" and the forthcoming "Ten Days in the Hills."

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