Saturday, February 23, 2008

Barbaro, death of a champion

January 30, 2007

Like many, I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death of Barbaro, the 2006 winner of the Kentucky Derby. He broke down in the Preakness after shattering a bone in his leg almost immediately out of the gate. For the past 8 months he's had multiple surgeries, great ups and downs but lost his fight and had to be put down. I can't recall a horse being so popular since the great Cigar about 10 years ago.

Barbaro won the Derby soundly and with conviction and in the two weeks before the Preakness, people were already talking about a legitimate Triple Crown bid. Winning a Triple Crown is the hardest feat in any sport, period. It's only been done 13 times in the history of thoroughbred racing and currently we are experiencing the longest drought of not having a winner, 29 years. To win a triple crown the horse and the jockey must be the best in the field three times at three different tracks, racing at three different distances.

What has irked me today is how talk radio was full of "Barbaro bashing." None of the hosts I listened to (liberal or conservative) could make sense of the connection to Barbaro that people had. They made fun of the people who have been expressing their sadness and emotional outpouring after his death. And it pissed me off. Sure there are more important things to be concerned about in the world, but just as important as being engaged in community awareness, there's also a part of us that needs to remove ourselves from the world as a distraction and enjoy something else. One of my diversions is horse racing and know first hand how the human/animal connection that exists in this world is amazing.

First, the shattering of Barbaro's leg happened on national television during the Preakness Stakes last May. It silenced the crowd during the race making what should have been a joyous time for sports, a somber moment. This was not just because he was out of the race, but also because the life of such a beautiful animal literally hung in the balance for the first few minutes and hours after his breakdown. (often horses are euthanized immediately after such accidents, sometimes right on the track)

People were stunned and saddened but became hopeful when the first surgery was successful. It was clear he'd never race again, but every Kentucky Derby winner becomes legendary; even if they go on to have a mediocre career and Barbaro had a chance to live. In the ensuing weeks he fought to live.

The Kentucky Derby is a long- standing sports institution. It's a prestigious event that has not sold out like the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl or the Bankone Ballpark. Why the fuss about Barbaro? AFter all, horses break down all the time at various race tracks around the world and we never hear about them. But Barbaro was already a champion after his Kentucky Derby victory.

People could relate to Barbaro because today it's impossible to relate to 99% of most professional athletes. 50 million dollars here, 60 million there all going to thug/gangsta athletes who exemplify atrocious behavior both on and off the court (being a good sport seems to only exist in tee ball these days) These are the athletes who get paid a kings ransom yet skip training camp until they get their way. They leave a team mid-season and demand to be traded because they don't like the coach. Yeah, they're real fine role models.

Horses and jockeys are the best and toughest athletes, period and I'll stick by that statement say it to the face of any professional athlete, any day. They are unmatched as competitors go in terms of the physical demands and risk placed on them. They have guts that professional athletes in other sports will never have, as they literally risk their life with each mount. Let me repeat that. The jockeys literally risk their life with each mount, knowing each race they run could be their or the horses last. And winning a triple crown is damn near impossible, which is why only 13 horses have ever done it.

Barbaro represented everything most professional athletes don't; humility and spirit. Too bad it wasn't Terrell Owens who broke his leg---a slice of humble pie might have been good for him and maybe he would have choked on it. Hey, I'm not insensitive to humans, I would have loved a chance to pound relentlessly on Terrell's back and rib cage trying to dislodge the pie.

Even if he lived we'll never know if Barbaro knew he wouldn't race again, but after his injury and through his convalescence, his spirit to win became his spirit to live. Most of us could relate to Barbaro because we're average people who dream and have aspirations. What did he get after winning the Kentucky Derby, perhaps the most coveted trophy in sports? He got a few extra oats in his feeding pail, maybe an extra apple or two and a lot of love, respect and admiration from his owner, trainer and grooms. He won every race he entered where he crossed the finish line and he won our hearts in the process.

No comments: