Barbaro: May He Rest in Peace

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Barbaro won last year's Kentucy Derby by 6 1/2 lengths, the biggest victory margin at Churchill Downs in 60 years. In the second race toward the historic Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, the sleek colt stumbled out of the gate and badly broke his leg. The usual racetrack routine is for a half dozen people to rush onto the track, hold blankets up around the animal to shield the public from witnessing the upsetting act of a vet running out to put the horse down. But Barbaro's owners jumped into rescue mode and spent these past eight months in an attempt to save their beloved horse's life. This Monday, they were forced to give up the fight. Barbaro, in the end, was euthanized.

So many of the reactions to this race horse's death this week express outrage that this animal's care cost hundreds of thousands of dollars while most poor people in this country don't have access to the basics of medical care. To be sure, we are each of us entitled to our opinions and there is some validity to wondering how much horse sense goes into the enormous expense of attempting to save a one-of-a-kind thoroughbred. All I know is what I felt when I heard the news. I was driving at twilight out of St. George, Utah, on Monday, through the dust-red mesas that skyline the Utah/Arizona border, clicking through the static on the rental car radio, thirsty for any at all of the day's news. Finally, a station comes through. "Barbaro," the news-announcer voice states with dignity and gravity, "was put down today after months of a stoic and valiant battle to overcome the injuries he suffered last spring en route to a possible Triple Crown victory." Then they played a sound bite of the veterinarian who had performed all the life-saving surgeries on Barbaro since that shocking day at The Preakness was choked up, spoke about the horse he had obviously come to love with such admiration, and then had to stop down to swallow his tears. And I cried. My cell phone didn't work out in the middle of the desert and I was frustrated not to be able to share my emotions with a good friend. Yes, the dollars spent to save this animal don't add up when you list what could be accomplished toward human health with those same funds, but that's a sideways argument. That money was never earmarked for human healthcare. We might as well boycott Julia Roberts' next movie because her $12 million salary could and should be spent on thousands of people's doctors' visits instead.

Just as we are moved by our own pets' silent devotion and we have been waxing poetic for centuries about the noble inspiration we derive from our dogs and our cats, we share a collective feeling for an innocent horse that falls while displaying his unique and magnificent athleticism for our entertainment. These Derby thoroughbreds are only three years old. They are toddlers. They run like the wind and we take sheer pleasure in their spectacular strength and speed. But they are fragile. We make them fragile. We pump them with hormones and latex and coagulants to keep the blood vessels in their respiratory systems from exploding. We inbreed them which makes them faster, but not healthier. For one, they can develop a nearly-always fatal syndrome called laminitis when they are unable to distribute their weight equally on all four legs. It was laminitis that took Barbaro down.

It's not a cut-and-dry evaluation of dollars and cents spent when it comes to saving a Kentucky Derby champion. Barbaro was a national symbol. A proven winner who did his utmost best every time it was asked of him. His owners, his vet, racing fans owed it to him to do their best for him in return. And so they did. And, yes, they spent a bundle along the way.

As the stars came out above those Southwest mesas, I flashed back to Barbaro's young brilliance around the backstretch turn, down the straightaway. I was sad to know he hadn't made it. I was sad for his caring doctor. But the money spent trying to save the horse? It was the right thing to do. May he rest in peace.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad