Weight of Barbaro's injury won't crash racing industry

The Kickoff

May 24, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

It has been four days since Barbaro broke down in the first furlong of the Preakness, and the conspiracy theorists are still coming out of the woodwork.

The horse wasn't sound to begin with. The horse hurt himself breaking through the gate before the race. Someone was seen behind a grassy knoll at Old Hilltop.

If you don't like conspiracy theories, how about a doomsday scenario?

Barbaro's injury might be the end of horse racing as we know it. The sport is in such staggering decline that this horrible moment in thoroughbred racing history just might push the industry over the precipice ... perhaps even onto the Outdoor Life Network.

Forgive me in advance for saying this, but we're talking about a horse here. It's a nice horse that captured the imagination of both hardcore and casual racing fans. It was a horse who won the Kentucky Derby in a romp and had never been beaten. But it was still a horse working in an industry where breakdowns like that happen all the time and are usually dealt with quickly and dispassionately. If you don't know what that means, consider yourself a very casual race fan.

I'm sure I'm going to get some angry letters from the good-hearted people who adopted Barbaro after the Derby and feel like they've lost a member of the family. I'll probably get some from the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) folks, who believe that any sport involving animals is exploitive and cruel, and most certainly see Barbaro's injury as the proof the American public needs to wise up and stop treating animals like, well, animals.

Let's dispense with that notion right now. Barbaro was bred to compete. If not for the thoroughbred industry, he never would have existed. So divest yourself of the silly notion that he would have been galloping free in Montana if not for this terrible industry.

Racehorses are born to run, and if everything falls right, they lead a fairly pampered existence and end up wandering the meadows of some idyllic farm between stud sessions. You should be so lucky.

The racing industry, on the other hand, has been struggling to attract a significant fan base for years, and the crippling of a dynamic star like Barbaro certainly was a damaging blow to the Triple Crown series. But let's try not to get carried away with the gloom and doom that will supposedly befall horse racing in the aftermath of the near-tragic Preakness.

If anything, the national outpouring of affection and sympathy for Barbaro is an indication that horse racing might be rooted deeper in the American consciousness than anyone imagined. It requires quite a stretch run of the imagination to see the whole industry collapsing under the weight of the heavy hearts inside most true horse racing fans.

This also might be difficult to comprehend, but for the past four days, the sport has exhibited a couple of things that are not generally associated with horse racing anymore - personal relevance and true drama. That might sound cynical, but Barbaro has become the protagonist in a dramatic plot line that has created a true emotional attachment between the horse and the American public.

Considering that Barbaro was not widely known before Edgar Prado guided it to that resounding victory in the Kentucky Derby, that's saying quite a lot about the potential of horse racing to at least maintain its current place in the hierarchy of American spectator sports. It will never be what it was in the 1930s, when the match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral lifted the spirits of a Depression-racked country, but it would be a big mistake to write horse racing's epitaph just yet.

The frightening turn of events at Pimlico on Saturday might confirm the jaundiced view of the industry held by a segment of society, but in a 24/7 SportsCenter world where the next big story is always just around the corner, the notion that Barbaro's injury will do any sustained damage to the image of horse racing seems far-fetched.

Perhaps it would have been more problematic if Prado had not quickly sensed Barbaro's distress and minimized the damage to the fractured leg. Perhaps we could have that conversation if the horse had been euthanized on the track instead of getting the best veterinary attention his caring owners could buy.

Yes, we're talking about a horse here, but the only conspiracy was the concerted effort of all the people who have worked together the past four days to give him the chance at a better fate than a lot of horses that had fallen before him.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

"The Peter Schmuck Show" airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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