A horse is a horse, of course, of course, unless, of course, you happen to live in 2007 America, where we alternately worship animals and this hour’s most photographed 95-pound millionaire with arrested development issues.
OK, I know that last observation hints at why the disproportionate public display of affection for the dearly departed Barbaro is no big deal. Two irreparably warped sets of priorities do not make a right, however. Nor do they change the fact that we’re whispering in hushed, reverential tones about a creature that spent most of its life eating, whinnying and crapping in a barn.
Horses are beautiful creatures. Horses make wonderful pets, if you are blessed with the necessary acreage and the time to give them proper maintenance. They are central figures each year in six minutes of compelling sports television.
But they are not people.
Barbaro died Monday after an eight-month battle with a broken leg and complications from excessive measures taken to keep him steady enough on his hooves to procreate. You already know this because it was bannered across every newspaper in our obviously bored country Tuesday and discussed with maudlin mournfulness in the first 10 minutes of each news broadcast the evening before.
We had an inkling that the last bugle was about to sound for Barbaro, thanks to a summer, fall and winter of fabricated and contradictory updates about his alleged progress. With open-book glee that most sports writers wish would rub off on cement-lipped Bill Belichick, Barbaro’s team of beneficiaries regaled us daily with the history and serial number of every screw implanted in the colt’s gimpy leg.
Only in the recent rash of retrospectives, books and sad, exploitative personal appearances involving Muhammad Ali has there ever been equal hubbub about a sports figure so inevitably leading up to his death. The difference? Muhammad Ali is a transcendent human being; a tireless champion of human rights and religious freedom. Barbaro was a beast, and a one-hit wonder at that. If Barbaro were a 1980s musician, he would have been Falco. Also, he ate hay and corn from a trough.
The obvious dietary and gross motor skill restrictions didn’t stop a handful of hemorrhaging hearts from sending fruit baskets, flowers and get-well cards to the Kentucky Derby winner. Robert Redford wasn’t available to play The Horse Whisperer and provide an official translation of Barbaro’s reaction, but “How the hell am I supposed to slice a pineapple?” is a safe bet.
This is one of those times (you won’t catch me giving the weekly average) when I’m embarrassed by my brethren and sister-en in the mass media. It’s the same exasperation that grips me when I read the account of a fatal fire that makes a point of telling me four people and three cats were killed. Cats are eminently replaceable, folks. I’ve got three strays wandering around my neighborhood most days if you want one.
Once again, we are guilty of catering to the tree-embracing, frog-licking extreme and artificially growing this story like our own, personal Chia Pet to monolithic proportions. And we had countless accomplices.
We are the ones who triggered the Barbaro phenomenon by showering a hurting horse with more concern than a hundred homecoming wounded soldiers. We are the ones who should have set the example years ago.
That’s we, as in the press that let a sports legend like Johnny Unitas die, bitter and damn near crippled, without putting the heat on a football establishment that allowed him to become that way. And we, as in the New England sports addicts who should have sent Tony Conigliaro more cards and letters, post beaning, and ought to be doing the same every Christmas for paralyzed Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley.
I’m sure every crazed and casual sports fan in the country cringed when Barbaro’s leg buckled at the Preakness. Sadness and pity were normal reactions. Sending gifts or even donations to feed the pipe dream of keeping him alive were not.
If we can’t take a cursory glance around our work-a-day world and find a walking, talking outlet for our compassion, shame on us.
And if our society truly has lost its ability to discern the pecking order in creation, forget sniffling over Barbaro and start weeping for our future.
Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His e-mail is [email protected]