Barbaro closes distance between power and fragility

July 14, 2006|By RICK MAESE

KENNETT SQUARE, PA. — KENNETT SQUARE, Pa.-- --Abright green sign hangs on the front gate guarding the entrance of the New Bolton Center.

"Keep believing in miracles," it reads.

Just a couple hundred yards inside, the world's most beloved hospital patient has lived for the past 54 days. The hope that Barbaro had inspired in so many was largely dashed yesterday, as doctors painted a dire prognosis for the Kentucky Derby champion.

The parking lot of the hospital was packed with media vehicles. Atop nearly a dozen trucks were large satellite dishes. Reporters and photographers lounged in the shade and waited.

Death-watch 2006! Live! Late-Breaking! And completely sickening. Funny how we can videotape the same white toothy smile from the lawn in front of a hospital, beam it up thousands of miles into space and then reflect it back down into living rooms all across the country.

Funny how we can do all that, but a powerful racehorse is near death because of problems in a single hoof.

That always has been the most amazing thing to me: That a 1,200-pound animal, with more muscle, strength and brawn than an entire football league, can actually be so fragile, so vulnerable. Even the very best are close to greatness, and at the same time, close to death.

The fans can be just as frail. We learned that at Pimlico on a sunny day in May, when Barbaro hobbled and the world howled. So fragile, so vulnerable. I can still hear the cries echoing. Yet, I don't always have an answer when I'm asked, "Why does everyone care so much about a racehorse?"

When any other athlete goes into surgery, there's interest, but not like this.

Can you imagine: Jamal Lewis is recovering from surgery today. Nurses say he walked comfortably around his hospital room this morning and has been flirting with fellow patients. The doctors who performed the procedure are accepting donations and are encouraging fans to visit the hospital and sign his cast. You can also bring peppermints or carrots, Lewis' favorite snacks.

The interest in Barbaro is different from that of most athletes, just as Barbaro himself is different. Horses are prized in American culture. We name our guns after them, our cars, our sports teams. We figure if John Wayne is sitting atop one, the world must be all right.

Maybe this shouldn't be the case, but I suspect there's some guilt associated with the swelling of support, too. The racing industry produces horses for the sole purpose of running them. Sometimes they come across a real gem, like Barbaro. Sometimes they come across one that needs to be put down, like Barbaro.

If we can so easily take credit for creating champions, we should also be prepared to take responsibility for losing them. If the pain continues, Barbaro will not. Doctors should not - and will not, they say - force him to stay alive.

"Barbaro, keep up the fight!" reads a green sign outside the hospital. "We love you."

Inside, the front lobby is decorated like a shrine. There are giant get-well cards, several 6 feet tall, each with hundreds of signatures. A small table is buried under a pile of gift baskets. Apples - red, green, yellow; there are carrots in some, peppermint candies in others. Some even have boxes of sugar cubes.

"Is this your first visit today?" I asked a florist driver in the early afternoon.

"Nope, my third," he said.

There's a small auditorium in the office's administrative building and get-well cards from schoolchildren line the walls. There's one from Miss Freimuth's first-graders in Meriden, Conn. Another from Mrs. Sumner's second-graders in Sandusky, Ohio, and another from Miss Bonafanti's third-graders in Moorestown, N.J.

They all profess to love this horse they've never met, this champion who was unknown to most until he pulled up in pain.

Something happens when greatness passes at a young age. It achieves icon status. Barbaro represents something much bigger than a three-hoofed horse. He's a champion, a fighter, and now an underdog. He's the rallying point that can elicit the same emotional response from a 7-year-old schoolgirl and a 70-year-old railbird.

Why do we care so much about this racehorse?

Because you grew up playing the part of a cowboy. Your sister wanted a pony. Your pop won some money at the track. You had an aunt and uncle who owned a couple horses on their farm. We've all had a connection to a horse and many of us know what it's like to lose a pet. These are feelings that are easy to project.

We've entered what feels like the last chapter of Barbaro's struggle. The TV trucks hold court outside the hospital, their satellite dishes pointed to the sky like hands raised in a classroom, each eagerly waiting to be called upon.

We care for different reasons. Just 3 years old, Barbaro has done it all, achieving greatness at the Kentucky Derby, staggering short of history at the Preakness, and now fighting for his life at the New Bolton Center.

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