Let the morbidity begin.

Kentucky Derby week is upon us. And while the mint juleps and the burning desire to slap down a longshot buck drive us a hundred miles closer to the Betty Ford Clinic, it’s time to pause for another maudlin moment and pay empty tribute to that late, one-hit wonder, Barbaro.

As the reigning champion of the most stimulating two minutes of television that won’t cost $9.95 plus tax on your Time Warner bill, our dead horse is subject to another four-day beating.

The first whip came down from race organizers themselves, who have drummed up a $1 million bonus to be awarded if Saturday’s winner can exceed Barbaro’s 6-length margin of victory.

Most sports promoters get their boxers in a bunch at the thought of any individual performance stinking up the show. Guess that doesn’t apply when the exploited is unable to defend himself. Come to think of it, what could Barbaro do to defend himself if he were alive? Say, “Neigh?”

Sponsoring this latest “tribute” to the euthanized equine is the parent company of Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver’s and Taco Bell. Certainly they’ve never before profited from a dead animal.

Any exposure to sports media between Barbaro’s breakdown at the Preakness last May and his death in January was convalescence overload. America’s ridiculous fascination has exceeded the impassioned response to the deaths of Elvis, Tupac and Earnhardt, combined. It’s horse pucky.

Sunday gave us another prime example. Josh Hancock, a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and an actual human being, died instantly in an automobile accident.

Hancock had a hand in winning the biggest event in his sport last year, too. But there won’t be any awards named after him. His life insurance beneficiary probably won’t see as many zeroes on the check as the potential winner of the Barbaro bonus. All he gets is a freaking patch with his number on it.

What a deliciously messed-up world.

* Speaking of ill-conceived $1 million bets, anybody out there taking up Curt Schilling on his challenge to test the sanitary hose at the Hall of Fame to determine whether the reddish-brown substance near the heel contains DNA or Krylon?

Schilling apparently made the wager (for charity’s sake, of course) on his blog. I’ve been tempted to participate once or twice, but I’ve always assumed No. 38 would find the frequent uses of subjects, predicates and punctuation marks too challenging.

* While I am writing today’s rant, the cotton-candy substantive ESPN2 morning show “Cold Pizza” is conducting a 2008 NFL mock draft. Memo to ESPN, in honor of the late Johnny Carson and his bumbling prophet, Carnac the Magnificent: May a diseased yak squat in your hot tub.

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