Barbaro's Legacy

I confess I really do love thoroughbred horse racing. But while jockeys and trainers certainly deserve (and receive) substantial credit for their accomplishments, let’s face it -- the one doing the most work is the horse. I’m absolutely convinced that thoroughbreds love to race (if you’ve ever stood close to the edge of the track and felt the electricity when they pass, you know it’s true). But what happens to them after they can no longer race? Sadly, many see tragic ends because their owners either cannot afford to continue to care for them or choose not to do so.

Enter Barbaro. Barbaro, of course, was undefeated entering into the Kentucky Derby, won that race like nobody’s business, and then suffered a terrible injury in the first part of the Preakness. It was an injury that most horses would not have survived even briefly. But for eight months he hung on, undergoing surgeries and various other treatments, and gave us many periods of great optimism until finally a hoof infection proved too much for him to overcome. The effort was solely to save his life; Barbaro would plainly never race again. Indeed, in all likelihood he would not even breed -- Barbaro’s fragile legs would surely not have permitted him to mount a mare, and the rules of thoroughbred racing do not permit breeding in any other way. Barbaro’s career, either as a race horse or as a stud, was over the moment of the injury.

As I understand it, under applicable insurance policies Barbaro’s owners could have had him euthanized at any time and collected tens of millions of dollars in insurance proceeds. Instead, they spent enormous amounts of money to try to save him. There was no financial or business incentive for them to do this; it was purely an act of love and respect. Barbaro was ultimately cremated, and his ashes will likely be buried in a public setting.

This story is compelling, sad and noble. But it is not the story of all race horses. According to the website of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (a charitable organization that rescues thoroughbreds from neglect or slaughter after they can no longer race), “Reality is a world where horse meat is in demand in many foreign countries and there are several slaughterhouses in the U.S., Canada and Mexico happy to create a supply.” It is reported elsewhere that thousands of horses, the vast majority of them healthy, are slaughtered in the U.S. every year for human consumption abroad. Descriptions of the inhumane conditions surrounding horse slaughter are too unbearable to repeat here, and numerous organizations have been lobbying Congress for years to try to outlaw the practice.

We make a bargain with these magnificent animals. They provide us with the great thrill of thoroughbred racing (and, for some, substantial monetary benefits as well). In return, they are entitled to decency, respect and kindness. Barbaro deserved every second of care he received; those who provided it behaved honorably, and the fans who grieve with them plainly appreciate everything they did for Barbaro. I hope, though, that in praising Barbaro and his caretakers we do not lose sight of the fact that his is story is not every horse’s story.

I don’t mean to suggest that the goal should be to get every horse the same kind of extraordinary care that Barbaro got. Many humans don’t even get that level of care. But at the risk of diverting us from the feel-good aspects of Barbaro’s touching story, I’d like to suggest that perhaps the best thing that could come of it is that it might shine some light on the tragic fate suffered by so many other horses. That would truly be a fitting legacy for Barbaro.