Barbaro's death transcends sports

Barbaro's death is not for the sports pages. It goes on page one and also Editorial. People who haven't been to a horse race in their lives feel undone by the loss.

Animals get hurt being what they are.

Horses run on stilts for legs. If horses didn't run on ideal conditions on a race track, they would try to split the wind on a lumpy field on the other side of nowhere.

The loss of Barbaro's life is unsettling for two reasons. One, we got to know the horse. We saw him blast through the starting gate, then shake off that violent encounter, and start running as best he was able, again. We saw him fall. We saw him taken from the track by van. We followed the surgeries and were gladdened by the rehabilitation. We saw him wobble from a barn with casts on both right-side legs. We saw the limp. The appetite. The bright eyes. We saw what was left of the one hoof, it looked like a peg.

Another reason the loss felt so heavy was because we've had animals.

Few animals are cowards. Some are born sneaky. But not even chickens are chicken.

Here's a story that came to mind many miles from where Barbaro went down trying hard.

After a divorce, I decided to get another dog, I mean, a dog; and I thought what better place to look at dogs than a dog show.

When I walked in the door at a big dog show in the city where I live, they were showing English springer spaniels, gorgeous animals that resemble part plaything, part hunter, part snob. I walked up to a woman outside that show ring and asked where I could get one of those. She said right this way.

We went around back where there sat frowning in a cage, Kirby, a black and white springer spaniel who was just a touch too ornery for the show circuit; touch him suddenly, and you might lose a fake fingernail, judge or no judge. Disliking show business? How smart was that. I bought Kirby on the spot.

Being rescued from the tiny-cage-and-van-and-blow-dry circuit pleased Kirby so much that he took right to me and kept a nose close by, and touching my calf, whenever possible.

Show dogs are bred to catch the eye and not always the stethoscope. Sometimes health is sacrificed to the blue ribbon cause.

Kirby was 3 when I got him, 5 when he showed a hitch in his right rear, 7 when the limp became him.

One morning shortly after he turned 9, he couldn't get up, and, for about the first time since we had been pals, he looked away. He had hip trouble, the worst -- X-rays of his right hip looked like a bad Leggo project abandoned by an absent-minded seven-year old. There was bone on bone on bone, no discernable socket for the top of the leg to fit into.

So instead of in the ground, I put Kirby in the back of the car and drove six hours to the veterinary hospital at the University of Missouri in Columbia, a place so efficient and well-managed, they can take my tonsils out anytime.

Several veterinarians there specialized in hip replacements for dogs –- one of them was just back from Japan, teaching the surgery there, when I pulled up with Kirby.

Hips are replaced in dogs more or less the way they are in humans, with an artificial socket pinned into the rear leg bone, the pinning being the tricky part, as leg bones need to be big enough to support a secure pin. Bad hips are typically a big dog problem. At the time, Kirby was one of the smallest dogs to go for a replacement. As if my teeth needed more reason to rattle.

The procedure cost almost $1,500 half a dozen years ago. A waiting list for hip replacement surgery can be found at most good veterinary hospitals today.

I carried Kirby in on a Wednesday and helped him walk to the car two days later, shaved slick and stitched tight.

For weeks afterward, I put a towl under his stomach for support, and walked him that way.

In subsequent years, he had his spleen take out, and had a front knee repaired. If a vet ever asks if you want to see your dog's spleen, pass. It's like a jellyfish.

He lived five years with the new hip. One morning at age 14 he looked up at me as if to say with his eyes: We did all we could. As Barbaro and his friends surely did.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com