Barbaro Death Touches Admirers

Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was put down this week after the long medical struggle that followed his leg injury at the Preakness Stakes in the summer of 2006. Both Barbaro's spectacular success and tragic death affected the racer's many fans.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

When Barbaro broke down shortly after the start of last year's Preakness, the fleet athlete suddenly halting and limping, his jockey Edgar Prado leaping down to tenderly place his shoulders against Barbaro's, to be his fourth leg, I burst into tears. So did most of the people around me. The race went on, of course. Bernadini won in an impressive time. But I think many of us cried because we'd see something precious burst in front of us, a falling star.

Over the past few months, as new, complicated and expensive medical technologies were deployed for Barbaro, you could hear occasional complaints that too much was being done for a mere horse, that so much attention was being paid to him and comparatively little to injured human beings in veterans hospitals or homeless shelters.

But I think it's as useless to complain about what fascinates us or causes us to fall in love as it to complain that kids these days like loud music that will hurt their ears. Barbaro touched something in millions of people. Not just the majesty and ferocity with which he ran. In his brief, abrupt and beautiful prime, Barbaro might have been the fastest horse since Secretariat more than 30 years ago. But the will he displayed - to shake off hurt, injury and anxiety and just keep going...

Years ago, I asked a great jockey if horses knew that they were racing. He laughed. Clearly I hadn't been around. Horses are born racing, he said - dashing, trotting, jumping and sprinting with each other and against each other in open fields. Riders just try to be good to them and hold on, he said.

Barbaro was an athlete, a champion, a performer. Champions carry the hopes of others. This week Laura Hillenbrand, the author of "Seabiscuit," the best book every written about a four-legged athlete, wrote us to say greatness walks hand-in-hand with grief because greatness is by its nature ephemeral. Part of the experience of witnessing it is ultimately watching it come to an end. It is this fleeting nature that makes it so wonderful to find and so hard to lose.

All of the elements of character that made Barbaro so incandescent to figure on the racetrack - courage, resolve, daring, unwavering will - were summoned a thousand-fold in his fight for his life. To watch this horse meet every morning of that struggle with buoyancy, with joy, with what Emily Dickinson called a rage to live, was to see his greatness truly and fully blossom.

I think it was impossible for any feeling person to look upon this horse in those difficult days and not feel wonder and admiration. It was this that made our connection to him so sweet, and when the news came that he was gone, it was the knowledge of what greatness died with him that made our anguish so deep.

Godspeed, Barbaro.

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