Barbaro. It's been three months, now, since the 2006 Kentucky Derby champion was
mercifully euthanized by his doctors, but with the Derby set to be run for the
133rd time this Saturday in Louisville, I'm missing Barbaro with a rather acute
sadness. And before you dismiss my heartache as the trivial suffering of another
PETA softy, consider how close Barbaro was to
For 23 years, starting in 1983, my parents hosted the finest Kentucky Derby party north of the Mason-Dixon. With the snow finally melted, their New England home greeted spring by welcoming anywhere from 50 to 200 Yankees into a Southern dwelling that merely by occupational chance -- my dad was a professor at Norwich University -- sat on Main Street in Northfield, Vermont. Year after year for almost a quarter century, "the greatest two minutes in
sports" became the centerpiece to one of the finest social gatherings my hometown might claim.
And the Derby champions became family. From Sunny's Halo to Ferdinand, from Sunday Silence to Fusaichi Pegasus, a four-legged hero raced into the lives of my family and our closest friends each May and became a talking point for the years, parties, and races yet to come. As the fates would have it, not a single Derby winner since 1978 has won the Triple Crown, the longest such
drought since Sir Barton first accomplished the trifecta in 1919.
Then along came Barbaro. Last year's Kentucky Derby was the hardest for me to watch, as it was the first since I lost my dad the previous fall. Mom chose to quietly enjoy the Derby with a friend or two, the community around her suddenly having the first Saturday in May to do as they please, fancy hats or otherwise. Here in Memphis, Derby Day happened to fall on my daughter Sofia's birthday. On top of that, a dear friend from high school was visiting the Bluff City for the first time. Plenty occasion for me to concoct my first mint juleps (Shirley Temples for my little girls). With birthday candles blown out, and thoughts of my dad filling my spirit, I watched Barbaro make history.
Undefeated when he entered the gate at Churchill Downs, Barbaro destroyed\ the field. The measure of his victory -- six-and-a-half lengths -- was the longest in 60 years. Sofia's last birthday present as she turned 7 appeared to be the next -- finally! -- Triple Crown winner.
Two weeks later, of course, our dreams were broken with Barbaro's right rear leg in the Preakness Stakes. But a champion thoroughbred -- and his medical handlers, it should be emphasized -- flirted with a miracle, and for eight months, no less. Somehow, a creature that first played the role of inspiration for its athleticism and strength became a source for the kind of
courage and will we humans love to celebrate but find so hard to exemplify. There was Barbaro, though. Still injured, one surgery after another, a cast on and then off, but alive!
I've long felt that champion racehorses KNOW they are champions. That blanket of roses draped over the Derby winner every spring says more about greatness than any postgame quote you'll ever hear from the clubhouse of a World Series winner or Super Bowl victor. And once a horse tastes victory, it won't settle for less. Defeat might come, to be sure. But the effort and desire is there beyond the capacity for most athletes -- yes, human athletes -- to imagine. This is what kept Barbaro alive beyond his horrific injury, and precisely why he needed to be set free on January 29th.
According to Barbaro's surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson, the laminitis in Barbaro's three uninjured legs had reached a point where the pain dwarfed what he suffered when his leg snapped in the early stages of the Preakness. That kind of constant pain won't allow a horse to live as one should. And no champion should be forced to limp in any pasture, however green. Barbaro knew his time had come, I'd like to believe.
I'd also like to believe that racehorses have their own special field (track?) in heaven. That they are able to gallop at speeds mortal horses can't approximate, and in front of other loved ones to whom we've said goodbye too early. Surely that's part of the immortality gained by winners of the Kentucky Derby. It's how I picture Barbaro this week, and why I miss him so much.