I needed contact to counteract the emptiness I felt after watching Barbaro break down at Pimlico last Saturday. So I reached out to touch my dogs through the evening, and hug my kids. I stomped one foot on the floor when the colt pulled up, and moaned, "Oh... oh...oh, no," all I can manage sometimes when the wind's gone out of me, when I feel like I have nothing left. "Oh...."
My 16-year-old daughter, herself a rider, was upset by my upset, and she tried to reassure me that Barbaro wasn't going to die. I didn't want to contradict her, but I knew his chances were slim when I saw that right rear ankle flopping around, completely out of the horse's control. I know that most race horses are put down immediately when they break down that dramatically, and I could see from the jock's body language that he knew it was bad as soon as he dismounted. Another involuntary "o-oh..." emptied out of me when I saw the horse holding its hoof in the air, in a proud effort to protect it, maybe, or a desperate, dumb effort to grasp what had happened, why he wasn't running his heart out with the other nine colts who were now deep into the backstretch.
It was almost too hard to watch, and I felt the urge to turn away, to leave the room, but I couldn't. I was caught up in my own desperate, dumb effort to understand what I'd just seen. It was just too shocking to watch a supremely fit animal go down so fast, so helplessly, so finally. I felt sick to my stomach. And I barked at one of the college kids in the room whose first reaction was that he'd lost out on a bet. That's not the point, pal.
But then, what was the point? Yes, I'd been caught up in the excitement about Barbaro's chance to win the Triple Crown, and I'd read enough about the horse to be intrigued by the unusual approach its trainer and owners had taken in preparing it for the three big races. Speculation about the horse had been feverish since its fantastic run at the Kentucky Derby. And here it was time for the Preakness, and everything was pointing up - the weather, the time of year, life. So much anticipation.
The sun was shining in Baltimore, the silks on the jocks sparkled, and the colts all looked fit, frisky, fabulous. They loaded cooperatively into the starting gate, and then there was that one breath-defying moment when everything is still, just before the bell rings, the gates snap open, and the horses drop their rumps to load up their hind legs, and they're off!
But then...what's this? A false start. Barbaro broke early, but was quickly corralled by the out-riders and brought back around for a reload. No harm done, the announcers told us, but you had to wonder: would the pumped-up wonder-colt have burned any fuel that he might need later to nose out some pretender at the wire?
He reloaded calmly, as if nothing had happened, and they were ready to run again, yet I still felt a little tickle of doubt. But they broke cleanly and everything looked fine as they pinched down toward the rail quickly, and we had ourselves a horse race. It was time to tune out the chatter on the TV and in the room around me, time to settle into the pace of the race, to focus on which horse was carrying the speed, which horse was farther off the lead than he should have been at the quarter pole. And just about when I got my bearings, it was over.
The point, it turned out, was pure disappointment.
I've spent enough time around race tracks, especially the backside where the barns are, to know enough lingo to impress at least myself - to refer to a horse as "the four horse," for example, instead of something about "the one with the blue and orange stripes - what's its name?" But I have no vested interest in racing, or betting, and when I measure horse racing up against my value set, well...it's easy to hop on my own high horse and dismiss the "sport" out of hand as a frivolous, wasteful indulgence for rudderless people who spend obscene amounts of money to purchase, train, and watch deliberately over-bred creatures run around - and blah, blah, blah, like that.
But sometimes even the silliest, most trivial slices of life take on a disarming significance when I need to hang my hat on a sense of hope, of possibility, of optimism. Isn't that why so many people were devastated when Princess Diana crashed and died in that tunnel in Paris, even though most Brits would shake their heads and mutter something evasive when asked what they think about the royal family and its role in the modern day U.K.
Hope springs eternal, as Alexander Pope pointed out, and especially in the spring of the year when plants are springing from the earth, when the warm weather puts a spring in our step, and when we take a minute by the TV to watch a handful of magnificent animals spring as one from the starting gate to run fast, to run free, and perhaps pull us along in their wake a bit.
And sadness hangs heavy, I have to point out, and it won't let go on command, in spite of the non-stop supply of stimuli that distract us in the hurried-up, hyped-up world we live in. I still can't erase the image of Barbaro, broken and helpless and lost out there on the track, smack dab in front of the grandstand, but somehow still classy and proud. It still hurts, but I want to remember how much I felt for that animal at that moment - how much I just felt - so I wrote this down. It wasn't enough just to mention it at the paper store or the dump on Sunday, or at the coffee shop on the way to work on Monday.
I'll probably end up watching the Belmont in three weeks, though the drama's gone out of it pretty much. But I want to hear myself thinking, again, as the horses make their way toward the gate: "I like the six-horse. It looks focused, and I like the way the jock sits it." Not that I'll have anything riding on it, of course.