Monday, May 22, 2006

They Surgically Repair Horses, Don't They?

Trying To Understand Our Emotions While Thinking Good Thoughts About Barbaro
As we wait to find out whether Barbaro, the confident, even cocky winner of the Kentucky Derby will survive the surgery following his gut-churning breakdown in the Preakness, it's time to come to grips with what millions watching that sad moment felt on Saturday.
It doesn't matter whether you're an inveterate horse player, who someone who just tunes in for the Triple Crown races to watch a spectacle, maybe even history in the making.
What you don't expect is to see a majestic athlete get injured -- perhaps mortally so -- while you're watching -- as it valiantly tries to understand what happened and why it can't do what it's trained to do, namely run faster than anybody else.
Which is why your emotions grip you so, why you cry out, or just plain cry, watching a frightened colt battle the pain as his jockey dismounts and tries to keep him calm. You see the shots of the trainer racing to the track, the horse's owners dressed in their finest breaking down into tears, and not because a big payday has gone up in smoke.
Injuries are part of sports. But rarely are the consequences of those injuries so immediately apparent. With rare exception -- Joe Theismann, Daryl Stingley, e.g. -- the athlete is helped off the field or at least carted away to a hospital. The crowd politely applauds his grit and everyone moves on.
But when you see a horse ambulance scream across the track, you only fear the worst, and for good reason. There's a very fine line between surgery and euthanasia with injured thoroughbreds, so magnificent, yet so vulnerable, so gallant in their prime, yet so irretrievably fragile.
We know all this, but still we pray or mourn in a way that would be alien in any other sport. But why? There's a nice piece that tries to answer that question in The New York Times today by Jane Schwartz, who wrote another book about Ruffian, a tragic filly who broke down in a match race and later had to be destroyed.
"When we care about someone, or some animal, our first instinct is to reject the idea of death. Most people want to leave open at least a small window of opportunity for hope," Schwartz writes. "Perhaps the real miracle — the one that matters to all of us, whether we know it or not — is that so many of us are still capable of caring so much. "

Another answer might be found in what may be the most outstanding article ever written about thoroughbred by William Nack, who spent much of his sportswriting career in and around a track. Nack, like many of us, fell in love with Secretariat. But unlike any of us, he got to know the horse and those who cared about him the most like no other. Which made his piece on the Triple Crown-winner's last moments in 1989 a heart-rending masterpiece.

I phoned Annette Covault, an old friend who is the mare booker at Claiborne, and she was crying when she read the message: "Secretariat was euthanized at 11:45 a.m. today to prevent further suffering from an incurable condition. . . ."

The last time I remember really crying was on St. Valentine's Day 1982, when my wife called to tell me that my father had died. At the moment she called, I was sitting in a purple room in Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas, waiting for an interview with the heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes. Now here I was, in a different hotel room in a different town, suddenly feeling like a very old and tired man of 48, leaning with my back against a wall and sobbing for a long time with my face in my hands.

Consider his books "Secretariat: The Making of A Champion" and a collection of his writing, "My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood Money, and the Sporting Life" -- which includes that unforgettable piece -- must reading.

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