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Jane Smiley Headshot

About a Horse

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Note: It may come as a surprise to Huffpost readers that my entire
life is not taken up with raging against the Bush machine. Thank God
for that, really. In the larger scheme of things, Bushes and Cheneys
come and go, but horse racing lives on. I am a great lover of
Thoroughbred horses, and this week, I am devoting my post to Barbaro.

Nine years ago, I had a Thoroughbred mare who came down with colic
in the night, and was too far gone to save by the time she was found at
six a.m. After she was euthanized, I remember staring at her body,
which was stretched out in the grass, running my hands over her. Her
coat was shining. Her haunch was rounded and firm. Her feet and legs
were perfect. Only that one thing had been wrong, that twist in her
gut, but it was enough, and it killed her. So it is with all horses.

They are engineered so close to the margins of what is physically
possible that when one thing fails, it can cause the failure of the
whole animal.

So it is, especially, perhaps, with Barbaro. When we've seen his
pictures over the last months, his ears are up, he's attentive and
beautiful and interested. He looks pretty good, except for those

His vets warned us all along that the odds were against him, but we
didn't really believe them. They had hope, too. How could a horse who
appeared so full of life break his leg and be so suddenly close to
death? His head was fine. His back was fine. His lungs and heart and
chest were fine. In fact, after a while, his broken leg was fairly
fine. It was the other leg that was so worrisome, since the weight of
his body constantly bearing down on the delicate structures inside his
foot eventually damaged and destroyed them.

A horse's hoof is wondrous structure - the outside horn is lined
with delicate membranes and blood vessels that feed and support the
bones of the foot. The bones of the foot are analogous to a person's
finger tips, since a horse's knee is analogous to a person's wrist -
the race horse carries a thousand pounds at thirty-five or forty miles
per hour using a few slender bones supported by an apparatus of
ligaments and tendons that have no analogues in human anatomy. Every
part of the system depends on every other part. What happened to
Barbaro was that the engineering couldn't take it. When it was right,
as in the Kentucky Derby, it was perfectly right, and when it became
wrong, it became irredeemably wrong.

Some observers have been angered by the outpouring of sympathy
toward Barbaro, but there is something extra large about the death of a

And the death of a Thoroughbred seems to me to be even more
shocking, because Thoroughbreds have been bred to press on and prevail
where other breeds of horses throw in the towel. When we saw Barbaro,
in the Kentucky Derby, fly away from the field so gracefully and
effortlessly, he was doing something Thoroughbreds have been bred to do
for three hundred years - to sense the encroaching fatigue of
three-quarters of a mile at top speed and want only to run faster, to
push ahead and take the lead.

We say that Thoroughbreds have "blood", meaning the DNA of desert
Arab horses, and "heart", meaning fortitude, desire, and competitive

It was heart that we saw in Barbaro, not only on Derby Day, but also
on Preakness Day, when he stood injured in the middle of the track,
touching his toe to the ground and snatching it up again, somehow
impatient, somehow not truly aware of the pain, somehow still ready to
get going.

I watched the Preakness with some lifelong racing people. When
Barbaro got injured, we turned the TV off. All of us had seen it
everyone who loves racing has seen it all too many times. It is the
paradox of racing. His dynamic beauty and his exceptional heart were
gifts Barbaro inherited from his racing forebears, who had the luck and
toughness to run and win and prove themselves worthy of reproducing.
Subsequently, during his medical saga, he showed that he was
intelligent, too. According to a friend of mine who talked to trainer
Michael Matz in the summer, Barbaro knew when he needed some pain
relief--he would stand by the sling and shake it until they put him in
it, and when he was tired of it, he would shake himself so that it
rattled, signalling he was ready to be taken out. And then he would go
to his stall and lie down. Did he want to survive? It seemed as though
he did.

In a great race horse, the heart and mind do the running, and the
body tries to hold up.

Yes, to those who don't care about horses, terrible things are
happening all over the world these days and they demand from many
people an unprecedented level of endurance, but we horse-lovers say,
"This, too? That this beautiful and innocent animal should also die?"
When I think of Barbaro, I like to think, too, of some of the tough
ones - John Henry, Seabiscuit, a horse I bred a mare to once, named
Loyal Pal. Among the three of them, they ran hundreds of times. They
managed to avoid the bad steps and the bad luck, to go to the races as
if a race were a trot in the park, coming back afterward to a bucket of
grain and a long nap. Sometimes, thousands of fans thrilled to their
exploits. Sometimes, the only ones watching were the owner, the
trainer, and a few punters. Like Barbaro, they did it because they were
born and bred to do it, because a Thoroughbred loves to run, and
because they didn't know what it meant not to keep on trying.

This article was originally published in the Washington Post.