Barbaro was famous, fast, handsome and immensely talented. But I have never believed that any of that had anything to do with why everyone cared so much about this horse and why so many were captivated by his battle for survival. It wasn't because he was a fast horse or a Kentucky Derby winner but because he was, simply, a horse. Most Americans have a soft spot for these noble animals and can't stand to see them suffer. Sometimes, we love animals more than we love people. Perhaps that's because an animal is more helpless than a person, and their vulnerability brings out the caring side in most of us.
We only seemed to care more about Barbaro than any other horse or horses because his story got told. Had a $5,000 claimer suffered the same catastrophic injury that day, had he been owned by terrific people who cared about his well-being and had he gone through an eight-month battle for survival, no one would have ever known about it. I can't imagine, though, that people would have cared any less had that story been splashed all over the sports pages for eight months. Call me naive, but I truly believe that.
Here's what some ordinary people had to say on Monday on a message board on the New Bolton Center's website:
"In today's New York Times there is an editorial about the gentle soul. It spoke to the pure of heart of Barbaro. This gentle giant taught us more about the dignity and understanding of living and dying. Thank you for your work."
-- Diana Whitehead
"Deepest sympathy on what is truly a national loss. Barbaro is an admirable hero, bolstered by the love and respect for life shown by all who cared for him. He has entered into eternity, taking our love with him. Thanks to all."
-- The Cole Family
"Barbaro was a magnificent horse and was loved by all. Godspeed Barbaro. Rest in Peace. You have been an inspiration to many. You will always be in my heart."
-- Carla Trottier
"I have cried along with the rest of America, with you and for you and for what extraordinary care you gave him. If by chance there's a heaven for horses, I know he is running in big green fields, head high."
Despite the tragic ending to Barbaro's life, his story produced so many positives, among them this overwhelming evidence that America is truly a country that loves the horse. Roy and Gretchen Jackson, the owners of Barbaro, understand that and, Monday, when speaking to the media following Barbaro's death, they asked people to redirect their grief toward doing some good for these animals.
"Certainly, grief is the price we all pay for love," Gretchen Jackson said. "I am sure there are a lot of grieving people out there. A lot of them have contacted me and I am so very appreciative of that. I hope we can turn our love into an energy that supports horses throughout the world. Not just in our own country and not just the thoroughbred we love so dearly, but all horses. Each of us might find a certain path that interests us. Whatever it is, I just pray that you will follow that path in support of the horse."
There are so many ways that can be done. Write a check to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (www.trfinc.org). The group helps rescue horses from slaughter and currently cares for more than 1,300 retired race horses. Call your congressman or senator and implore them to support a bill that has been floating around in Washington for what seems like forever to ban the slaughter of horses in this country. Send off a check to the Grayson Foundation (www.grayson-jockeyclub.org). That's a group that is committed to the advancement of research to enhance the health and soundness of all horses.
"An awful lot of positives came out of this," Roy Jackson said Monday. "Veterinary medicine has learned a great deal by this and the general public has been educated about veterinary medicine. There have been a whole host of subjects that have come to light because of this, like the anti-slaughter bill and helping people on the backstretch. Our hope is that some of these issues won't die and will continue be brought up and acted upon in a positive way."
Horse racing is a great sport and its largely made up of people who love their horses and care for them in the best possible manner. But it is also a sport that is hard on its participants. Horses get hurt at racetracks every day and many have to be euthanized. Too many horses who come off the track have no place to go and are in risk of being sent to slaughter. In 2006, 100,800 horses were slaughtered in the three-foreign owned slaughterhouses operating in this country. That shocking number includes thousands of ex-race horses.
Horse racing will never be perfect, but the point is that it can always make improvements and people should never stop trying to make it a sport that is kinder to its horses. After all, after what we have all seen with Barbaro, never again can anyone claim that people don't care about the horses. They do.