Be well, Barbaro

May 23, 2006

Once again, fate has provided a tragic reminder that there are no sure bets in horse racing.

The runaway winner of the Kentucky Derby is now hobbling about the intensive care unit of a Pennsylvania horse hospital thanks to a bad step just moments after breathless commentators had all but awarded him Saturday's Preakness and bettors had tilted the odds so heavily Barbaro's way that a winning ticket would have brought no more than 50 cents of profit on the dollar.

It's hard to dispel the notion that such huge expectations might have been a jinx. For the thoroughbred racing industry, the disappointment was palpable at another year - for a total of 28 straight - without a Triple Crown winner to help re-ignite interest in what often seems an outmoded sport.

And yet, in his give-it-all way, Barbaro sparked an emotional reaction even greater than the thrill he might have inspired by reprising his Derby romp. From the overeager false start, to the sudden spectacle of his right hind leg dangling, to the screen placed around him in case the horse had to be quickly dispatched, the record crowd of 118,400 and millions more watching on television were hooked.

At Pimlico Race Course, there were shouted pleas to spare the horse's life. Bloodhorse.com, which posted frequent updates on Barbaro's condition throughout the weekend, reported a record level of Web traffic, five times greater than in the same period after last year's Preakness.

According to the Associated Press, the lobby at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Large Animals, where Barbaro underwent five hours of surgery Sunday, quickly filled with tributes, including a sign urging: "Be well, Barbaro."

Racehorses are injured every day, of course, often fatally. And nearly 90,000 American horses a year are slaughtered factory-style for sale overseas as food because their owners give them up. Yet there's something compelling about watching such stories unfold - and they make great movie plots. Seabiscuit and Dreamer, films based on true stories, feature horses nursed back to health from severe injuries to win big.

Nothing now suggests Barbaro could ever race again. In fact, with three bones broken or injured and held together with a plate and 23 screws, it's doubtful his leg will ever be strong enough to allow him a career at stud. Industry rules require natural breeding.

Yet for his wealthy owners and his legions of well-wishers, it will be enough for the undefeated horse with the unusually soulful eyes to live out his life in a grassy pasture. Barbaro has done his job - and then some.

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