A 'Bottomless' Heart

By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

In diagnosing the public's unreasoning love for Barbaro, maybe it comes down to the fact that he never lied to us. Human nature seems like a sorry, wastrel thing, compared to that horse. No doubt, we idealized him, but the fact is, we could have used a happy ending for Barbaro, given some of the Gilded Age characters who parade safely through public life into retirement. His survival seemed like one good thing, a balm for foreign wars, domestic deceit, and the bimbo cocktail party circuit, ruthless wealth-swappage, and cross-entouraging that we lately call American culture.

Barbaro was an honest, blameless competitor. Our ridiculously soft feeling for him was based at least partly on that fact. Unlike so many people in the sports pages, he was neither felonious, nor neurotic. He let us place burdens on him, whether a saddle, a bet, or a leg brace, and he carried them willingly, even jauntily.

On the track, his trainer and jockey reported that there seemed no end to what he was willing to give. "Bottomless," was how they described his heart. He obviously raced for pleasure, and he ran with such dynamic abandon that he made circling a track seem an impetuous act. His effort was always sincere and supreme, and when he won the Kentucky Derby by 6 1/2 lengths, the largest margin in the race since 1946, it was less of a surprise than an affirmation to the people who had reared him. "Why shouldn't we have felt that way? Every time he had run before, he never let us down," trainer Michael Matz said to the Thoroughbred Times. "His will to win was obvious in whatever he did."

Also, he was handsome. On display in his stall, he had the calm expression of an inveterate star, and a preening stance that suggested he'd heard the roar of the crowd and knew he'd won the big one. Even his doctor, Dean Richardson, who hardly saw him at his best, noticed this. When he was asked why Barbaro excited such affection from perfect strangers, a choked Richardson replied, "He was good looking."

We followed his medical reports like they were our own. Phrases like "laminitic area," and "deep subsolar abscess" became familiar, as did the anatomy of his horribly damaged hind leg, the shattered pastern and sesamoid, and the pinned cannon bone.

There have been continual attempts to analyze why Barbaro's fight to survive so captivated the public, but maybe it's fairly simple: He had both innocence and greatness and it's not often you find those ephemeral qualities alive in the same creature. What's more, anyone who watched Barbaro run in the Derby felt that they saw traces of a distinct character: He was winsome. This gave his suffering specificity. We felt we knew him.

Possibly, this is anthropomorphic, and some have rightly pointed out that we should care as much about human beings. But it's not anthropomorphic to say that horses are irreproachably benevolent creatures, and this is surely one of the causes of our grief over Barbaro. It's a fact that of 4,000-odd animal species, only a very few are tame-able, none more so than horses. They are peaceful grazers by nature, and willing by disposition. Despite their considerable size advantage, they tolerate us and even bear burdens for us. While thoroughbreds can certainly be fearsome, their misbehavior is a flight response, not sadism, or outlawry. They have followed us, and favored us with their gifts to an extent that few other animals do, and partnered with us throughout history, from Persia to the Pony Express. "Gallant" is a word often applied to them, and it's apt.

Barbaro seems to have had all the virtues of his breed, and a few more besides. His character wasn't a matter of wishful projection, it existed, and was quite vivid to those who cared for him. He was indefatigable and had a high tolerance for pain. He was mettlesome without being spiteful -- and how often do you find that? He was expressive. In a lovely piece a few weeks ago by John Scheinman of The Washington Post, one of his night nurses described him as "mouthy." He befriended another patient at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa.: a cow. When he slept, his night nurse would pet him.

Despite pain and confinement, he wasn't mean. Among the things that caused his owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, to give up hope yesterday was that, in the grip of wounded exhaustion, he finally tried to bite the hand of his doctor, Richardson. It was a first in eight months of treatment.

Novelist Jane Smiley wrote a strange and wonderful book a couple of years ago called "A Year at the Races," in which she explained, with an articulacy missing here, that the human engagement with horses is nothing less than a love story. If you were wondering why the death of Barbaro hurts so, there is the answer:

"A love story, at least a convincing one, requires three elements: the lover, the beloved, and the adventures they have together," Smiley wrote. "If the lover isn't ardent, then the story isn't a love story. If the beloved isn't appealing, then the lover just seems idiosyncratic or even crazy; and if they have no adventures, then their love is too easy, and they have no way of learning anything important about themselves and one another."

Barbaro was appealing, and he was obviously beloved by the public, and by his owners. If the public learned anything from him, it was that with enjoyment of thoroughbreds comes responsibility for doing the right thing by them. One of the few consoling results from the Barbaro tragedy was an anonymous gift of $500,000 for the establishment of the Barbaro Fund, for animal care at the hospital where he died. Yesterday, it was Gretchen Jackson who best summed up the public outpouring for a horse. "Certainly, grief is the price we all pay for love," she said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company