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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Barbaro, the horse that won the Kentucky Derby and then broke his leg, is still recovering from the latest setback, a diseased hoof. As he does, a huge community of fans watches virtually bedside online. NPR's Luke Burbank set out to find out who these people are and why they care so much about a horse.

LUKE BURBANK: I came across this story more or less by accident. It was a Friday morning and I was reading the sports blog Dead Spin when I saw a link to a video on YouTube. I clicked on it and was instantly mesmerized.

(Soundbite of song, "Simply the Best")

Ms. TINA TURNER (Singer): (Singing) I call you when I need you, my heart's on fire.

The music, "Simply the Best," by Tina Turner. The images, a photomontage of Barbaro. That's right, the racehorse that got hurt during last year's Preakness.

(Soundbite of song, "Simply the Best")

Ms. TURNER: (Singing) You're simply the best.

BURBANK: The video was just one of maybe 50 Barbaro tributes on YouTube. They all followed pretty much the same pattern: cheesy music - Enya, Bryan Adams, Michael Bolton - underneath a bunch of zooms in and out of stock photos of the horse.

(Soundbite of song, "Go The distance")

Mr. MICHAEL BOLTON (Singer): (Singing) Where a hero's welcome would be waiting for me. Where the crowds will cheer...

BURBANK: I googled Barbaro tribute and ended up at a Barbaro message board set up by the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, where he's been recovering. There were hundreds of messages just from that day, all addressed to the horse.

MERCYTORONTO54(ph): You gorgeous Barbaro. We are praying for your continued recovery. We know you'll remain undefeated if you listen to what Dr. Dean tells you. MercyToronto54, Tampa, Florida.

BURBANK: MercyToronto54 is quick to point out that she's not a kook or a shut-in. She's the office manager of an accounting firm in Tampa. She's a grandmother of two. Basically, she says she's a totally normal person outside of her obsession with Barbaro.

MERCYTORONTO54: I try to do Barbaro in my spare time. Unfortunately, he's become a habit, you know, almost like crack.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MERCYTORONTO54: It sounds like - he is very addictive, but in a good way.

BURBANK: There are two main Web sites where Toronto hangs out, a place called Tim Woolley Racing, which has become a sort of unofficial clearing house for Barbaro updates, and then the Web site of the New Bolton Center.

MERCYTORONTO54: I get up, and I go check on Barbaro. Then before I go home, you know, I'll check again. And then when I get home, before I go to bed, I check on Barbaro again. I can go night-night, and that's it, and I'm happy knowing that the horse is happy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GAIL LUCIANI (Director of Communications, New Bolton Center): The first day that Barbaro came to us, I received more than 4,000 e-mails before my account shut down.

BURBANK: Gail Luciani is director of communications at New Bolton. She says people call and e-mail her all the time, trying to get messages through to the horse or his doctors. After that first day, when her e-mail was melted down, the hospital set up a message board for people to talk to Barbaro. And message they have, a couple of hundred posts every day, all of them written to the horse, says Luciani.

Ms. LUCIANI: People understand that Barbaro can't read, but that certainly the staff can, and they want to give any type of encouragement that they can to the faculty and staff at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ms. GAIL LORENSEN(ph) (Barbaro Fan): Well, I have sent several messages.

BURBANK: Gail Lorensen is a legal secretary from Ohio. She posts on a few of the Barbaro Web sites. She says she started out writing to Barbaro's owners.

Ms. LORENSEN: And then I'd read other people's messages, and it seemed like most everyone was addressing their message to the horse.

BURBANK: So she started doing it, too. Lorensen says she knows it may seem a little silly to people on the outside, but she wants to make sure that Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who own Barbaro, realize just how much she appreciates what they're doing.

MERCYTORONTO54: We know the horse doesn't talk. Come on. We know that he doesn't see any of that. He even got a wedding invitation.

BURBANK: That's MercyToronto of Tampa, Florida, who we started out with. Like a beloved pet or, maybe more recently, Lady Diana, Barbaro has come to embody all sorts of things to all kinds of people, things he's certainly not even conscious of. One woman I talked to, who'd gone through a family tragedy, said following Barbaro helped her get her faith back. Another woman said it may have saved her marriage.

Through the Barbaro community, Mercy Turano found out about an injured trainer, a man she's been working to raise money and even a new house for, something she says she never would have done otherwise.

So in essence, Barbaro is making you a better person.

MERCYTORONTO54: Definitely, most definitely, and I'll take it. I don't care what it is. If I feel like I'm doing a good job for somebody, I don't care that a horse inspired me to do so. I'm grateful that I've got the opportunity and I'm thankful.

BURBANK: As good a reason as any to crank up the Tina Turner. Luke Burbank, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Simply the Best")

Ms. TURNER: (Singing) You're simply the best, better than all the rest, better than anyone, anyone I've ever met. I'm stuck on your heart. I hang on every word you say. Tear us apart, baby I would rather be dead...

CHADWICK: Get well soon, Barbaro, on DAY TO DAY.

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