Injury to Barbaro bringing millions of fans together

May 22, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

KENNETT SQUARE, PA. — KENNETT SQUARE, Pa.-- --The word "unusual" is being used by the doctor performing the operation, and by the head of the facility at which it was performed, to describe the injury that sent Barbaro here.

"Unusual" also aptly describes the scene at the facility yesterday. The George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals had never seen a throng this large for the medical updates on any other patient. Of course, none of its previous patients had suffered its injury before some 118,000 onlookers in person and millions more on national television.

And as beloved as those poor animals surely were, it's likely that none of them inspired anonymous people to bring posters, drawings, flowers, toys, gift boxes and some apples and carrots inside the hospital or leave them at the entrance of the center. One poster included a prayer card with a photo of a saint, with instructions to rub it on Barbaro's infamously broken right hind leg.

"The saint will be watching over Barbaro," the note read, "and make sure that he is rested and he is heeled [sic] quickly."

No, this was not a typical Sunday in southeastern Pennsylvania's horse country. Everything about Barbaro's horrifying breakdown at the Preakness Saturday has been above and beyond the norm. So, even with the lobby of the hospital packed wall to wall with reporters and cameramen and layered end to end with wires and cables, it didn't seem strange.

By the time the final update on the operation was given at 9 p.m., a little over an hour after the operation ended, the media contingent was approaching 100, and one fence at the entrance was covered by mementos, with the opposite fence sprouting its own.

Everybody knew a lot of eyes and ears were tuned in to the place where the best surgeons at the University of Pennsylvania's school of veterinary medicine were trying to save a racehorse that had been poised to capture America's hearts.

"A lot of people have called, a lot of people left messages," said Michael Matz, Barbaro's trainer. "There were a lot of people on the overpasses as we drove over here." He paused, then said, "He had a lot of fans."

So as hospital and school officials worked to educate the visitors - opening a window to exactly how powerful, fragile, wondrous and terrifying a thoroughbred and its body can be, especially up close - cell phones buzzed and beeped incessantly. Not just from the various assignment desks, either. Lots of people from outside the hospital and the horse racing world were wondering: What's going on? Any news? Is he going to be OK?

Looking calm, cool, even jovial all day, hospital director Dr. Corinne Sweeney - assigned the task of relaying information from surgeon Dean Richardson - noted that she's spoken to large audiences of her peers plenty of times, but not a room so full of lay people representing so much newsprint and wattage.

"No, this is a lot different," she said. "But it's understandable."

Quite unexpectedly, this has turned into a touchstone moment in sports and society. Within minutes of the scene's playing out in the opening moments of the race, observers were recognizing it as one that years from now, they'd be remembering where they were when it happened.

By yesterday morning, it seemed that the entire country was checking in with someone for fresh news, many having finally seen during the endless replays what the Pimlico fans had seen live. They were watching a game, they were at the movies, they were at a cookout, they were stuck on the Beltway on the way back from the mall - and eventually they were all saying, "What happened at the Preakness?"

Much the way they did when Ron Artest went into the stands, and Mike Tyson bit Evander Hoyfield's ear, and Lawrence Taylor broke Joe Theismann's leg.

What are the odds - no pun intended - of a horse race becoming that kind of event?

It would have taken the right horse in the right race at the right time, and that perfect combination came together in Baltimore late Saturday afternoon. Barbaro's gruesome injury made racing the topic of the day, and the weekend - no easy trick to manage on the same day Barry Bonds homered to tie Babe Ruth.

It was more of a topic than if Barbaro had simply won the race and set up a shot at history at the Belmont next month. More than if he had broken the track record, more even than if he'd nearly been knocked to his knees, as Afleet Alex memorably had been a year earlier.

In the long run, it might not say anything about the future, the allure, the problems and promise of horse racing in this country - even though those questions were on many minds yesterday (without anyone from the thoroughbred world on hand in person to answer them).

If it says anything, it speaks to how the most wrenching, unforgettable, national-bonding events happen when you least expect them.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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