Bissinger Recalls Barbaro on Kentucky Derby Eve The 2006 champion broke his leg in the Preakness and was eventually euthanized. Author Buzz Bissinger, who profiled Barbaro for Vanity Fair, talks about the horse of a lifetime — and about the recent attack on blogging culture that has made the writer a Web sensation.

Bissinger Recalls Barbaro on Kentucky Derby Eve

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/90126970/90126909" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MIKE PESCA, host:

A confluence of events is at play as we welcome our next guest. Tomorrow is the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby, horseracing's premier event, and Buzz Bissinger's article about the Derby champ of a couple of years ago was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. Those ceremonies were held yesterday. That piece was about a horse that you have heard of, even if you don't follow horseracing.

(Soundbite of broadcast of 2006 Kentucky Derby)

Unidentified Commentator: As Sweetnorthernsaint and Jazil, but they're coming to the finish and it is all Barbaro! In a sublime performance, he runs away from them all and he has saved something left for the Preakness. Barbaro wins by seven! Bluegrass Cat...

PESCA: Of course, it was two weeks later in the Preakness that Barbaro broke his leg, an injury that led him to be euthanized. That is a subject in a piece called, um - what was your piece? What was the name of it? "Gone with the Wind"?

Mr. BUZZ BISSINGER (Reporter, Vanity Fair; Author, "Three Nights in August"): Uh, it was called "Gone like the Wind."

PESCA: "Gone like the Wind". Buzz Bissinger, Vanity Fair, contributing editor, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for political writing, right? With the Philadelphia Enquirer?

Mr. BISSINGER: Actually, it was for investigative reporting...

PESCA: So he's done all sorts of writing, all sorts of reporting. And if you're a fan of "Friday Night Lights," he's the man behind that, too. Also "Three Nights in August," which was the best look at the inside mindset of a major league manager I've ever read. So thanks for coming on, Buzz.

Mr. BISSINGER: Well, thanks for having me.

PESCA: So when you hear Tom Durkin do the announcing - he's a great announcer...

Mr. BISSINGER: Yes, he is.

PESCA: Does it still affect you?

Mr. BISSINGER: Yeah...

PESCA: Do you get emotional, choked up?

Mr. BISSINGER: As I heard it I got sad.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. BISSINGER: I mean, he - this was just - and my take on the piece and it was a particularly complicated - this was not just a magnificent animal. This was a magnificent athlete.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. BISSINGER: And I saw him dying. It would be like Michael Jordan dying in the prime of his life, or Beckham dying in the prime of his life. And so when I hear that call, you know, that famous call of, "Here comes Barbaro!," when he comes around the far turn and then he pulls away - I, as a kid, was lucky enough to be there at the Belmont when Secretariat won the Triple Crown.

PESCA: To me, that is...

Mr. BISSINGER: And Barbaro reminded me, he had that instinct. He could have been that great. He could have been one horse for the ages and I don't think we'll see a horse like that ever again. I'm not an expert, but...

PESCA: So, 1973, Secretariat wins the Belmont by 31 lengths.

Mr. BISSINGER: Yes.

PESCA: And that - the film of that - I was one year old at the time. Where you see Secretariat cross, and then the camera stays and there's no other horse in the frame, and it has to pan to the left, it just gets me every time.

Mr. BISSINGER: Right.

PESCA: There's something about horses, of all sports - I don't know, maybe it's that they're pure. Do you like writing about them? Compared to other athletes?

Mr. BISSINGER: Yeah. I mean, I like animals. I mean, that's the reason we all like animals, because you know what? They're pure, they're honest and I think the outpouring for Barbaro when he got hurt was really based on it. He didn't have an entourage. He didn't have a posse. He hadn't been arrested for marijuana possession or possession of a gun...

PESCA: Right.

Mr. BISSINGER: But you know, horses do have intellect. They do have interior lives. 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.

I mean, he went through, I don't know, a dozen different anesthesias, just surgery after surgery, and he finally said to people, you have to let me go. And that was very, very hard, in particular, for the surgeon.

PESCA: So talking, as you just did, that you don't have to write about spousal abuse, or SAT scores, is there a liberation in writing about an animal athlete? Especially because you don't have to get a quote from him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Probably so often, you love what he does on the field. And then athletes really can't - often can't analyze themselves. They're not that aware. So that has got to be a frustration in sports writing.

Mr. BISSINGER: No, athletes are definitely not aware.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. BISSINGER: A few are. The danger in any piece like this - and the piece did work out well. I know, truth in advertising, I did not win last night. I blame you guys for this...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: We - there is a curse of the BPP.

Mr. BISSINGER: Yeah, obviously, BPP has jinxed me...

PESCA: Yes.

Mr. BISSINGER: And I will never forgive you. But having said that, the danger in any piece written about an animal, and I'm going to mispronounce the word because it's too long, but you anthropomize (ph) the...

PESCA: Anthropomorphize.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Anthropomorphize, yeah.

Mr. BISSINGER: There you go. And that's the danger, that you put thoughts - you've seen those pieces - you put all sorts of thoughts into the horse's head, because it's easy to do, because who knows what the horse is thinking? That's what I try to avoid. So you rely on other people, whether it's the trainer, Michael Matz - and one of the great delights is Michael Matz has a horse in tomorrow's Derby.

PESCA: Oh, which one is his?

Mr. BISSINGER: Visionaire. It's a 20-to-one shot, but, you know, Michael is a fantastic man, a great athlete, very proud, very inward. And that's great to see. So you rely on him. You rely on the owner, Gretchen Jackson, who is the most down-to-earth, honest one person you will ever meet. You rely on the surgeon, Dean Richardson. Because, you know, if you do too much of it, it begins to sound really silly, you know?

PESCA: Yes.

Mr. BISSINGER: I didn't want to make him into "Mr. Ed."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BISSINGER: But this horse definitely did show a lot of signs of, you know, you're doing the right thing, enough is enough, and he really was able to communicate. There were people he loved, there were people he hated, and he made it clear. There was a massage therapist they brought in. And he just hated her, just hated her. And basically kicked her out of the stall.

PESCA: And so Matz had to come and redress his wounds, you know, basically every day...

Mr. BISSINGER: Right.

PESCA: Which is amazing. He was probably giving up a lot of money - because he's an in-demand trainer - having just to train Barbaro.

Mr. BISSINGER: Right. Well, Matz loved the horse the most and knew the horse the most...

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. BISSINGER: And I think Matz, knowing Michael, was very, very appreciative of what Barbaro had done for him. You know, he says in the piece, he says, look, if this is what it takes to train a Kentucky Derby winner, then it's pretty damn easy. That horse pretty much did everything that I wanted.

Now Barbaro could be really ornery because he was hard to saddle. In his first race ever he wouldn't get in the gate. And then at the Preakness, you know, it's the one X factor we don't know. As we all remember, he left the gate early...

PESCA: Right.

Mr. BISSINGER: And had to be reexamined and...

PESCA: And I remember so much controversy afterwards, like I've never seen. Why would they let the horse run? It's, you know, the de facto decision that you take the horse out at that point. Someone had to blame something...

Mr. BISSINGER: Right.

PESCA: And that was so unusual that, of course, but they inspected him and he seemed fine.

Mr. BISSINGER: Right. It's unusual. And he was inspected and I don't think it had anything to do with it. I think what it showed, he was really over-adrenalized, as these horses get. You know, the problem with thoroughbred racing is no matter how well you treat them - and he was very well-treated - it's a very difficult life.

It's a difficult life because of the way American racing is. The tracks are hard-packed. It's hard on their hooves. It's hard on their legs. American horses are built for speed. So their legs - you've seen their legs, they're thinner than ours - are not built for the muscle mass that often they have to carry.

And this was a horse of magnificent musculature. But Dean Richardson, who would really know better than anyone else, said it was just a tragic misstep, and unfortunately, these things happen in life. And there is no bogeyman. There is no villain. There is just simple tragedy.

PESCA: I'm sure you've heard the theory about sports writing, that's it's inversely proportional to the size of the ball. Have you heard that one?

Mr. BISSINGER: No, I don't think I have.

PESCA: So sports with the bigger balls, like volleyball, basketball, eh, not such good writing. Golf, you know, baseball, great writing. Golf, really great writing. And then, when you get to boxing and horse racing, no balls at all, the best writing.

Mr. BISSINGER: Right. That's good.

PESCA: Is there something about horse writing that you like? Opportunity to use phrases (unintelligible)?

Mr. BISSINGER: Well, I mean, this was one of the first stories I'd ever written about a horse. I mean, being a journalist for a long time, you know a good story when you see one, and I had the advantage of being able to write the story after - you know, I never met Barbaro in the flesh.

PESCA: Mm hm.

Mr. BISSINGER: I mean, he was dead. And sometimes it's the best time to do stories, because you're going in and you're able to really reconstruct and re-interview people when they sort of have calmed down. But there's no question some of the best, you know, writing I've ever read has been about horse racing. William Nack was a phenomenal writer about horses.

You know, you talk about boxing and you see the work of W. C. Heinz. I mean, they were brilliant. And this was just a great story because it was uplifting at times, as the way Barbaro hung on, and you thought he was going to make it. And then at the end, there was such tragedy as he really said, you know what? Let me go. Let me die in peace. I cannot take this anymore.

PESCA: So let's segue to the thing that's made you an Internet sensation.

Mr. BISSINGER: Yeah.

PESCA: Do you think writing like this - which is writing and reporting - is threatened by the Internet?

Mr. BISSINGER: Yeah. I mean, you know, here's what I say. In the light of day, having three days removed, there's no question I could have been somewhat more diplomatic...

PESCA: And what happened? I've got to set the scene. You were on an HBO show with Bob Costas as the moderator. You sort of debated Deadspin's Will Leitch. Will Leitch has been on our show a few times. And your point was what?

Mr. BISSINGER: My point is that I think the Internet, and I think blogs - not all blogs, I've since learned there are some good blogs out there. There are some bloggers who are dedicated to the craft of trying to do things well.

But 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. Traffic hits, if you get enough of them, that's where you get advertising and that's where you begin to make money. I mean, let's not mistake this. You...

PESCA: All cynical and depress...

Mr. BISSINGER: Yes, I mean, they want to make money. I mean, come on. So my feeling, which I still believe, is that most blogs are dedicated to what is completely antithetical, not just to me, but to the dozens of journalists that I've known in my life.

You know, whether I won or lost last night, there were dozens of great pieces being written with tremendous bravery, great reporting, great writing, and you're not going to find that on a blog. 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. Now, my approach was not the greatest.

PESCA: Well, let's - we - I've got to give - we have an example of that.

Mr. BISSINGER: Oh, great.

PESCA: And here's how you said it on HBO, with some bleeps.

(Soundbite of TV show "Costas Now")

Mr. BISSINGER: Ah, yeah, I'm just going to interject because I feel very strongly about this. I really think you're full of (beep).

Mr. WILL LEITCH (Founding Editor, Deadspin): OK, well, that sounds fair enough.

Mr. BISSINGER: Because I think that blogs are dedicated to cruelty. They're dedicated to journalistic dishonesty. They're dedicated to speed...

(Soundbite of blip)

Mr. BISSINGER: And it's amazing to me that you say sports news without access, favor or discretion, when you admit to being biased for the Cardinals...

PESCA: OK Richard Sandomir, a print journalist, wrote that your attitude "subverted a reasonable point." Would you own up to that now?

Mr. BISSINGER: Yes, I would. I mean, I think there are some very valid points that I made, but I simply too angry, and it wasn't a put on. I mean, you know, call my wife. You'll - call her today. I wake up in the morning and I'm ranting about 16 or 17 things, and she finally says, I give up. I'm going to go get coffee. I can't stand being around you. That's the type of person that I am.

PESCA: And it drives you to...

Mr. BISSINGER: I mean, I really, I do consider blogs not just a threat to journalism. I do consider them, in a sense, many of them, a threat to society, in that it is constant dumbing down. I don't know why have this...

PESCA: Are these only sports blogs, because the debate is also, a very similar debate is with political blogs, where political writers say, we report and all you guys do is pick over it. But at least the political blogs could say, you know, with - we're the ones who drew attention to Dan Rather and that scandal.

We're the ones who drew attention to Trent Lott talking about Strom Thurmond. You know, the Daily Coast has - or actually, TPM, because they assembled all these people looking through documents, they pretty much reported the attorney general scandal.

Mr. BISSINGER: Yes.

PESCA: Now I don't know if sports blogs have done that sort of reporting, but it's just, you know, it's kind of a new-media-versus-old-media and gatekeeper-versus-democracy argument there.

Mr. BISSINGER: Well, and you know, the answer's I don't know. I'm sure there are sports blogs that have broken some things. There's a pro-football blog that drove...

PESCA: Pro Football Outsiders, which is great stat.

Mr. BISSINGER: That drove much of the coverage of Michael Vick.

PESCA: That's right.

Mr. BISSINGER: Which is a good thing. So yes, I mean, there's certainly bloggers out there who do reporting, and I cast too wide a net, but I'm not going to back off from what I said. I think, in most instances, you know, look, unfortunately, cruelty now sells in our society. I may be the only person alive who think that what's being done to Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan - not only is enough is enough, I think it's cruel to them. Let 'em go. Let them go.

PESCA: Well, it's like booing in a stadium. If half...

Mr. BISSINGER: And that's what we want. That's what we want.

PESCA: Half the audience boos, it sounds like everyone, but...

Mr. BISSINGER: And that's what we want.

PESCA: Well, maybe not everyone.

Mr. BISSINGER: And it may not be the tone of the blogs. But you know, they are going to write something controversial enough that the tone of the posts, which are part of the blogs, no matter what bloggers say, the tone of the posts could be the most vitriolic, the nastiest, the most hair-raising, the most disgusting stuff that I've ever read, and I've got a lot of emails, and I've got a lot of emails from bloggers who have been very, very thoughtful...

PESCA: Mm hm.

Mr. BISSINGER: And have opened my eyes to a lot of things...

PESCA: Have you read more blogs than you've ever read in the last couple of days?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BISSINGER: I've read more than I ever want to read. Some of them are quite good. You know, there's a lot of baseball blogs. I mean, there's this endless deconstruction of statistics, you know, which should be done at MIT. I mean, enough is enough.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. BISSINGER: But the bloggers, some have been very thoughtful, they've not been personal, but there have been a lot of attacks on me, from the way I walk, to the way I dress, to the way I smell. You know, I could use all sorts of profanity. You know, you're just an old-headed idiot, and that's putting it, you know, putting it mildly, and I think that's what most blogs are dedicated to do. And it's not - they don't threaten me...

PESCA: Yes.

Mr. BISSINGER: I mean, I'm going to write for Vanity Fair. I'm going to continue to write...

PESCA: You're established. You're a brand. Yeah, yeah.

Mr. BISSINGER: But I'm also a journalist, and I think it puts print journalists in an impossible situation, because now editors are saying, you know, you have to be more edgy. Why don't you do a blog? Why don't you do a blog like Deadspin?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BISSINGER: And journalists say, well, wait a sec. I - we have some standards. We have some standards. We report things out. We just can't say whatever we want. And you know, the blogs start rumors that may or may not be untrue. And don't think it has no impact on athletes.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. BISSINGER: Because athletes are the most sensitive creatures in the world. They look at it. They go on Deadspin, and you know, Will Leitch actually is a nice guy. He is. And I should never, ever have treated him that way. And I am embarrassed for myself, and the emails that I got that hurt the most were from fans who said I'm going to burn your books...

PESCA: Mm -hm.

Mr. BISSINGER: I'm going to turn my back on you. And that did hurt me personally. And I feel unfortunate about that. But you know, when they want pictures of Matt Liner doing something idiotic, you know, they're not doing it to show that he's human. They're doing it to humiliate him. And then pro-athletes say, why should I talk to any of you? I don't care what your credentials are. You're a liar. All you want to do is play the game of "gotcha and get me."

PESCA: Buzz, I want to thank you for coming in and talking about a great piece and a really interesting issue. Buzz Bissinger, who is a National Magazine Award winner and has written "Friday Night Lights" and a few other books that are some of the best sports writing you'll ever read. Thanks a lot, Buzz.

Mr. BISSINGER: Hey, thank you.

MARTIN: That does it for this hour of the BPP. We don't go away online, npr.org/bryantpark. I'm Rachel Martin.

PESCA: And I'm Mike Pesca. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

MARTIN: Happy Friday!

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.