Barbaro-mania, the sequel – it would have been the horse’s fourth birthday Sunday – is just launching, and already the box office is boffo.
Next Saturday, Queen Elizabeth II will bite down on sugar cookies cut in the shape of silks that will be decorated in Barbaro’s colors and with the number eight that he wore while winning last year’s Kentucky Derby. The Queen’s cookie feasting comes at about the same hour that Roy and Gretchen Jackson will be exalted from the Churchill Downs winner’s circle in a tribute that should be every bit as saccharine. The ceremony follows a book signing outside the track’s souvenir shop. These are busy, and tricky, times for the Barbaro team, keepers of the Barbaro brand.
A horse died, and the circumstances surrounding his death were tragic. But beating the drum for a stricken animal to promote thoroughbred racing is a practice that is fraught with dubious results. Take note, Barbaro’s connections are entrusting the standard of sensitivity to the same cut of people who once named a Grade 2 stakes after an Internet mattress company in return for a sponsorship.
Barbaro’s role is not to be Jerry Lewis or Pat Tillman, but to survive as the embodiment of a brilliant and brave champion that engaged fans with unprecedented compassion during his days on the racetrack and in convalescence. That his circumstances were thrust onto a stage that plays to a ready-made audience makes them all the more powerful.
Critics of horse racing believe it’s cruel to require animals to perform at a level that’s dangerous to their well-being. Lovers of the sport believe it’s in the nature of horses to run, and when a horse like Barbaro goes down, the only way to make his loss serve a purpose is to use the triumph of his life and the sadness of his death to make certain the fewest tragedies possible occur in the future.
In the role of rainmaker, Barbaro may be a greater force than as racehorse. The Derby day ceremony involves a Churchill Downs donation of $25,000 to the Barbaro Memorial Fund, which was established to raise money for equine health and safety research. Blue rubber bracelets featuring the phrase “Riding with Barbaro” will be sold to the fans in the stands for $2 apiece to further fill the coffers.
Nevertheless, which of the books, the movies, the stories in the press and on the Internet, and the gatherings at the racetrack to light candles, sing songs and recite eulogies are emotionally and financially extortive? And which are merely easy marks in the quest for much needed attention?
No doubt, this column is exploitive of Barbaro. The topics easiest to publish are those that appeal to the biggest audiences. Just as racetrack operators see opportunity when it confronts them, so do the talking heads on television and editors of newspapers and magazines and Internet sites who pass on straightforward stories about racing because their audiences lack interest.
Mea culpa, mea culpa. A headline with the name Barbaro, a lead that titillates with sarcasm, an ornery take on a fractured tale – what doesn’t scream “look at me” in these 600 words?