Bissinger Recalls Barbaro on Kentucky Derby Eve

Barbaro at the 2006 Kentucky Derby

With jockey Edgard Prado, Barbaro comes around the final turn in the 2006 Kentucky Derby. hide caption

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On Saturday, the world's finest three-year-old horses will run the 134th Kentucky Derby, a race that toys with the hopes of millionaire horse owners and $2 bettors alike.

The 2006 race was won by a horse named Barbaro. Two weeks later, in the second leg of the Triple Crown, Barbaro pulled up lame with a shattered right hind leg. The nation watched as specialists spent nearly a year trying to save the American thoroughbred's life. The end came on Jan. 29, 2007, when complications forced veterinarians to euthanize the horse.

Reporter Buzz Bissinger followed the story of Barbaro for Vanity Fair. His feature, "Gone Like the Wind," was a finalist for a 2008 National Magazine Award. Bissinger says he still gets sad when he hears clips of the call from Barbaro's Kentucky Derby win.

"It wasn't just a magnificent animal," he says. "This was a magnificent athlete. It would be like Michael Jordan dying in the prime of his life, or Beckham dying in the prime of his life."

Bissinger says horses can't lie, but they can think. "They do have interior lives," he says. "And this was a horse of uncommon intelligence and uncommon guts and bravery. What strikes me the most about him is he really taught humans how to die. He finally, in his own way, said, 'Enough is enough.' "

He says that much of what went wrong for Barbaro can be traced to the nature of horse racing in America. Barbaro was treated well, he says, but the hard-packed tracks and fast races took a toll. "You've seen their legs — their legs are thinner than ours," he explains. "They're not built to carry the muscle mass that they have to carry."

Bissinger vs. Blogging Culture

Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Days in August, recently sparked intense debate after he tangled with Deadspin.com blogger (and NPR contributor) Will Leitch. The two squared off Tuesday on HBO's Costas Now, with Bissinger attacking the culture of blogging — emphatically.

As the New York Times described the encounter, "Bissinger entered in an extreme state of annoyance and outrage about bloggers' writing skills, their lack of journalistic ethics and their absence of credentials. His distaste for Leitch and his ilk was communicated with scornful body language."

"I think blogs are dedicated to cruelty, they're dedicated to dishonesty, they're dedicated to speed," Bissinger told the television panel. His tirade prompted one Deadspin commenter to write, "... Buzz is afraid that if America gets dumber by reading blogs, we won't buy his books and pay for that addition on his house."

In his interview with NPR's Bryant Park Project, Bissinger acknowledges that some bloggers are trying to do good work. He says he might have delivered his message more diplomatically, but he stands by the essence of his remarks.

"I think in general the tone of most blogs is very cruel and very mean-spirited, because that's what gets posts, and they want posts, because that's what gets traffic hits," Bissinger says. "If you get enough of them, that's where you get advertising, and that's where you begin to make money."

The craft of writing and reporting is threatened by Internet culture, he says. "Most blogs are dedicated to what is completely antithetical not just to me but to the dozens of journalists that I have known in my life," he argues, saying readers generally will not find brave, deep reporting online. "It's mostly about edge, it's mostly about off-the-top-of-your-head opinion. And I think it does dumb us down as a culture."

On our blog, an open thread: Bissinger responds to iKerfuffle.

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