Two weeks ago, at the Kentucky Derby, a big bay colt blasted past the other horses as if he possessed a top gear unknown to the rest of the field. But more than that, what caught my eye is how relaxed he seemed. His ears flicked from side to front to side, as if he had all the time in the world, there at the finish, to listen to everything around him. With those ears, in that instant, Barbaro had my heart.
I’ve been a horse junkie all my life (the fact that I grew up a city kid, with nary a fiery steed for at least ten miles in any direction, seemed like a particularly sarcastic joke on the part of the universe), and I’ve followed the Triple Crown races almost that long.
The Kentucky Derby. The Preakness Stakes. The Belmont Stakes. Three races in 5 weeks. Anything can happen, and so goes the old saying: That's why they call it horse racing.
As a kid I watched Seattle Slew, the little horse everyone laughed at, romp off with the Crown. Then, the very next year, Affirmed and Alydar slugging it out from Kentucky to New York, Affirm’s margin of victory growing narrower with every race, until that immortal Belmont Stakes: Affirmed and Alydar battling head to head down the homestretch, me jumping up and down in front of the family TV yelling, and at the end…Affirmed again, literally by a nose. The second Triple Crown winner in two years, the third in 5 years. All the "experts" proclaimed that the mighty Crown, the benchmark of equine greatness since 1875, was a benchmark no more. With snide condescension in their voices, they said, Modern horses are just too good. From now on, we’ll probably have a Triple Crown winner every two or three years.
That was 28 years ago. No horse has claimed the Crown since. But this year, as I watched Barbaro blow away the field at the Kentucky Derby, I thought with a thrill of excitement: This is it. This guy could do it.
Anything can happen. A jostle down the backstretch. A thrown shoe. A horse not up to his best. Sure. That’s why they call it horse racing.
We don’t like to think injury. Of course it happens; injury is a risk in any sport, with any athlete performing to the utmost. All it takes is one bad step. But these are horses. We love them. Injury is too terrible to think of.
Yesterday, barely 100 yards into the Preakness Stakes, Barbaro took a bad step. From wishing for a Triple Crown, now we pray only that he survives.