February 2, 2007

A million little pieces: The legend of Barbaro

On another day, the continued carnage and unabating violence in Iraq might have been the story that saturated the airwaves and drew our attention. But this week the ceaseless crisis in the Middle East will have to wait; Peyton Manning’s right arm and Tank Johnson’s electronic tracking bracelet will take a seat on the back burner; Christopher Dodd’s presidential campaign will still be completely irrelevant. On Monday, the cruel hand of fate descended from the heavens to take the life of our most beloved solid-hoofed herbivorous quadruped.

The loss of a one-time Kentucky derby champion shattered the hearts of millions of Americans into tiny little pieces, not unlike the left hind leg of their hero. Barbaro, the brown-eyed equine king of steeds, is dead, murdered in cold blood by doctors at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center—euthanized by the same feckless rogues who swore to protect him. Truly, these are the times that try men’s souls.

Such tragedies can inspire dire courses of action, but we would be wise to avoid hasty decisions. This is not a time for anger, vengeance, or finger-pointing. The perpetrators of this heinous act will undoubtedly be brought to justice in due time. Now is a time to remember and celebrate what this steed stood for: hope. Barbaro may have been euthanized, but his ideals still roam free.

You know why Shadowfax could gallop so fast with Gandalf on his back? Because he was trying to catch up with Barbaro. The Ford Mustang GT500 has a 500-horsepower engine. But if you read the fine print, you’ll see that 500 horsepower is equal to roughly one Barbaro. You couldn’t feed Barbaro oats like every other horse. He would take a mouthful and spit it right back out. Barbaro ate only chocolate cake. People claim that Barbaro is Spanish for “badass.” The truth is the other way around: “badass” is English for Barbaro.

Had he survived the treacherous care of his caretakers, Barbaro would be looking forward to a lifetime of studding with the choicest mares in all the land. He could have fathered more offspring than Brigham Young and Shawn Kemp combined, all without any of the entangling legal responsibilities. Let’s see Jack Bauer do that.

His death, while tragic, underscores an important point about our sports culture. Because there was never much of a chance of Barbaro getting caught on video doing coke off of a stripper’s back, because you knew you were at least a few years away from police raiding his stable and finding unlicensed assault rifles or contraband carrots, because at three years of age he reeked of innocence, he was put on a pedestal he never sought or deserved. To outsiders, he represented an ideal for what all professional athletes should be: Graceful. Honorable. Hoofed.

His fans spent too much time admiring his seemingly impeccable character and not enough time grappling with the salient issue at hand: He was a horse. For all the talk of Barbaro’s courage and his heart of gold, who knew what was going on in that oddly-shaped skull of his? Barbaro rarely talked to the media. He was, for all intents and purposes, a recluse, never showing any ability or will to learn the language of his fans. Perhaps his actions spoke to an arrogance barely concealed beneath his shiny coat—or maybe he was just shy.

To paraphrase Ted Kennedy, Barbaro need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. He exists now only in the wildest and most mysterious corners of our hearts, and in little tubs of paste in kindergarten classrooms across America; the dozens of racing champions he might have sired consigned to a fate of nonexistence.

His legacy will live on in the murky underworld of online message boards and YouTube tribute videos. Perhaps there will be a candlelight vigil or state funeral at Churchill Downs. Some attention-seeking (or just nuts) mayor will declare “Barbaro Day” in his or her city. And Barbaro’s closest relative, his as-yet-unnamed brother, will be adopted as his successor, the Eli to his Peyton.

Let them eat paste.