Tuesday, January 30, 2007

RIP, Barbaro

Predictably and deservedly, the death of Barbaro has received extensive news coverage in the last 24 hours. Here in horse-mad Maryland, it was the top story on the front page of today's Baltimore Sun, and the subject of another article and two columns in the Sports section. I won't attempt to add my voice to the chorus that has praised and mourned a champion whose destiny was so suddenly and terribly altered last spring. I am sure there are at least dozens of people more qualified to tell that story.

What I would like to do is address the question raised by some people since Barbaro first suffered his injury at the Preakness Stakes. Why all this fuss about a horse? Right after the Preakness, it seemed that every news article or radio update was inevitably met with a letter to the editor or an abrasive caller questioning why such a big deal was being made about Barbaro. These were probably the same people who wondered why ESPN named Secretariat one of the best 100 American athletes of the 20th century. I guess these folks never read William Nack's great tribute, "Pure Heart," or Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit," and I would be willing to bet that they have never seen a horse race up close.

You have to go to the track, watch the horses being saddled in the paddock, see them strut, saunter and stomp through the post parade. And then you have to stand on the rail, near the finish line. Pick a long race, so they pass you twice, and you can feel the energy of the crowd surge behind you as they come down the stretch. You don't even have to go to a big race, just pick an average track day, because the drama is the same to the participants, just as the last out in a Little League game is the same for the players as the seventh game of the World Series. If you do all those things and still come away unimpressed, well, God bless you, and I sure hope you have found a passion somewhere else in your life.

Not that horses are a great passion of mine; I'm not even a close second in my own family. That honor goes to the Doc, who was a competitive equestrienne from childhood through college. Six years ago, she realized a lifelong dream and bought a horse, Egyptian Summer, who she would ride every day if she had the time. A few years back, she did go to the barn every day when Egypt had a nasty bout with laminitis, the same condition that finally felled Barbaro. Even though Egypt hadn't suffered the multiple leg fractures like Barbaro, our vet still cautioned that recovery was doubtful, but the Doc tended to her daily, for weeks going on months, and fortunately the leg healed.

My grandparents on my father's side were also great horse lovers, more as aficionados than riders, though. Their two-week trip to Saratoga for the thoroughbred racing season was an annual summer highlight. One of my earliest memories of them is a picture of my grandmother standing next to a racehorse with my grandfather's face pasted over that of the jockey sitting astride his mount. This pre-Photoshop alteration so tickled them that a lifesize blowup of it hung in their garage.

For years, they would come down from New York for a big family and friends outing to the International, a turf race in Laurel, Maryland, that featured horses from around the world. They would read the racing form and comment on this horse's sire or that one's dam and races they had won or lost. They'd ask you what you thought about the colors or the names and maybe stake you to a $2 bet on your favorite.

Now for the tough part. Those are fond memories for me, but as we learn on days like yesterday, life is never going to be all glory and roses in the winner's circle. Gambling is a large part of horse racing, and much as I'd prefer otherwise, I cannot exclude it from my reminisce because gambling was one of the addictions that plagued my father and brought him to an early death. Without going into more detail, I think it's easy to see how there are more than a few sides to this story for me. So how do you handle a piece of your personal history so confluent with joy and pain?

Well, for starters, knowing the hereditary nature of addiction, you don't make a habit out of going to the track. Nor do you open up an Internet gambling account or make room in your various sports obsessions for point spreads and money lines. But if you allow yourself to continue to enjoy the races the way you did when you were a kid, you can add more good memories to the scale, and let them meld with the old ones to outweigh the bad eventually.

For the last few years, part of our family's end-of-summer ritual is a day at the Maryland State Fair. Sometime between the farm animal exhibits, the simultaneously sweet, salty, and greasy food, and the overpriced thrill rides of dubious safety, we take an hour or so to sit in the grandstand at the race track. Horses that we will never see on TV on a Saturday in May take to the track, and after the Doc's keen appraisal and the boys' color and name analysis, I put down a few bets. Everybody has some lunch, and we watch at least one race at ground level, right by the finish.

And every spring, I watch the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, just as excited as everyone else to see a Triple Crown contender emerge. And when greatness like Barbaro's falls victim to fate, I mourn.


John F said...

Great post, Bill.

I am now surrounded by horse lovers. We have three in horse riding lessons and others to follow. Andolyn also has a lifelong love affair with horses. I am guessing that ownership is in our near future.

I have the same fond memories of the International and our family trips to the track. I remember with great clarity putting $2 on 50-1 shot named Geron and winning $108.00. Pretty heady stuff for a 10 or 11 year old. I can see the addictive nature of that particular beast and so I also leave it alone completely.

I can't come to a much of a profound conclusion, but I am glad for the memories (and the caution).

By the way, for a poignant look at the dark side of gambling, try a movie called Owning Mahoney. I always recommend it with caution because of the sadness of the material, but it is very well done.

Bill Fitzgerald said...

I couldn't remember the horse's name, but I remember the odds going up and up as post time approached, and I will never forget the two crisp 50s that came back from the betting window. Funny what stays with you.

...Kat said...

Thank you for your thoughtful words.

Bill Fitzgerald said...

Thanks for the compliment, Kat. I enjoyed my visit to your site as well, especially the link to the Laura Hillenbrand interview. It's always nice to hear an articulate, well-informed perspective. Your Secretariat link was a mixed blessing, sending me into a bit of a YouTube frenzy for Big Red and Ruffian race films.