When I first heard about Barbaro, my reaction was probably about the same as everyone else’s, one of great sadness. He was a magnificent animal who did what he was bred and trained to do about as well as it could be done. But when I read something so over the top like this, it makes me cringe a little:
If only we’d had more time with you. You were beautiful. You were brave.
You were the best.
You enriched us all, in the nanosecond that you flashed across our universe.
You caught the magic. You shared that spell with us. Like all superior athletes, you lifted us above the world of the mundane into the universe of the gifted.
We soared with you.
You gave us something else to think about besides our ordinary lives. You caught our attention, Barbaro. For all that’s wrong with sports, you stood and said with the authority that comes to a Kentucky Derby winner, "enough" to what we do to win at any cost. Never did gossip or suspicion mar the course of your racing career. No steroids. No spit balls. No stealing signs.
That may have been why you were sent here: to remind us all that winning without taint of suspicion is what sports should be about. Oh, we’ll forget your lesson soon enough. We’re flawed in ways that you were not. But your moral light at least flickered briefly in our consciousness. Thanks for that, Barbaro.
The writing has an elegant touch here and there, but it’s anthropomorphic sludge. Barbaro wasn’t brave or noble or full of "moral light." Those are human attributes that we gave to the animal for our needs, to fill in the blank spaces of our own shortcomings. Barbaro was a racehorse, simultaneously pushed and pampered for a sport run by millionaires for the pleasure of a very select fan base. In a sense he transcended the sport and captured the popular imagination, but he had a lot in common with all the animals that have amused us, from the circus elephant to the pit bull chained up for the next dog fight.
In the end, though, his owners spent tens of thousands of dollars in an effort to save him that they probably knew was pointless, because they could afford it and, I hope, because he had come to mean more to them than something to get the blood pumping on the way from the mint juleps to the betting window. That’s the saving grace of the Barbaro story for me. Most of us have been there.
When my cat Pierre got old and had liver trouble, I spent $1,200 on tests and treatments. That was a lot of money to spend on a cat, many would say — indeed, did say. But it bought him a couple of more years, and they were good years. After a year of mourning — and that is the right word — I was over it enough to get two more cats, Dutch and Maggie. I know that I have provided all three with safe environments and care and attention. I’ve loved them in my way, making them part of my family instead of just animals. But they are animals, and with me they don’t live the lives their instincts dictate. Cats are wanderers and hunters, not couch-sitting drape climbers. I talk to them and pretend they are plotting against me while I’m at work. That’s my anthropomorphic conceit.
Animals don’t have rights, but they have their own kind of dignity, and how we treat them says much about what kind of people we are. So I’ll end as I began, sad that Barbaro is gone. He got as good as he gave, which is a happy ending given the history of humans and other animals. If he has touched us on a deep level, perhaps it is because most of us hope we can be so kind when it counts.
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