It Takes a Horse

How America became obsessed with Barbaro.

Jockey Edgar Prado tries to control Barbaro after pulling him up

After the breakdown of Barbaro in the Preakness Stakes the other week, an astounding outpouring of emotion deluged the pages of newspapers and newsmagazines across the country. “Brave Barbaro, His Owners Must Love Him,” proclaimed the Wall Street Journal. “Now’s a Time for Healing, for Barbaro and for Matz,” noted the New York Times, staunchly. An op-ed writer for the Times offered up a ponderous, if accurate, rationale for why Americans feel so strongly about a horse most had never heard of until a few weeks earlier: Horseracing is dangerous, and so we feel cruel when these “wordless creatures” hurt themselves for our entertainment. Well, yes. But horses—even famous horses, like Go for Wand—break down all the time while racing. What that columnist and other essayists have failed to answer is a deeper question: Why this horse, and why with this much feeling?

There’s one potential factor that no one has pointed to: Americans have historically become preoccupied with horseracing in times of national strain. The last time we saw this much interest in the sport, my father recently pointed out to me, was during the Watergate era, when two horses, Ruffian and Secretariat, seized the public imagination. Ruffian was the game front-running 3-year-old filly who broke down in a match race with Foolish Pleasure and had to be put down. The year was 1975. Patty Hearst had been kidnapped the previous summer. The fall of Saigon took place in April. Only a few years earlier, the Watergate scandal had begun; America had pulled out of Vietnam; and Palestinian terrorists had attacked and killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympics in Munich.

Against this backdrop of recent unrest, Ruffian was seen as a beacon of hope when she won the Fillies’ Triple Crown. Her dominance led sportswriter Pete Axthelm to write, “Horseplayers are beginning to wonder if this year’s leading three-year-olds are involved in a battle for a racing championship or a national election campaign. … [T]he candidate with the real charisma—the people’s choice who has inspired the current bidding war between racetracks—is the magnificent filly Ruffian.” Ruffian liked to run in the front, and her mettle reminded Americans (or at least American sportswriters) that idealism wasn’t a lost cause. More interestingly, sportswriters turned Ruffian into the embodiment of anxious contemporary debates about civil rights and women’s rights (one piece about her was called “Fillies’ Lib”). Remembering her after her death, Axthelm wrote, “She was big, black and beautiful. She had raced ten times and never for a single stride had she been second best.” Likewise, in 1973, Secretariat was put on Time’s cover after winning the Belmont; beside him was the text “Super Horse,” as if, like the caped superhero, he could save Americans from the muck of Watergate.

Tellingly, America’s other most beloved horse, Seabiscuit, came to the nation’s attention during the Great Depression. A scrawny, small colt, Seabiscuit lost dozens of races as a 2-year-old before finding his racing legs—and the right jockey and trainer, a washed-up duo who believed in him—in 1936. When he began to win and win like there was no tomorrow, he swiftly became an iconic figure for down-on-their-luck workers. After suffering a series of sidelining injuries, Seabiscuit was matched against the perfectly proportioned and sleek-muscled *  War Admiral—a Triple Crown-winning F-16 of a horse. As Laura Hillenbrand elegantly captured in Seabiscuit: An American Legend, the match, which Seabiscuit won, became an incarnation, in the public eye, of starving families’ fight to survive. Seabiscuit enjoyed a level of fame that seemed unprecedented for a horse. When he once raced in Tijuana, Mexico, thousands of Americans crossed the border to see him, inverting the normal flow of exchange. In 1938, Walter Winchell named Seabiscuit one of the Top 10 “newsmakers of the year,” along with Franklin Roosevelt.

Of course, when a Kentucky Derby winner like Barbaro suffers a public injury in a major televised event like the Preakness, our sympathy is surely magnified. (A filly who’d won only one race died last week at Belmont, the New York Times reported, and little noise was made about it.) Even so, his injury seems to have taken on a surprising significance to scores of adults. When the star filly Go for Wand broke down in the stretch of the Breeder’s Cup Distaff in 1990, it was enormously distressing to those in attendance and watching on TV (I was there, and I wrote about it here). But her injury didn’t cause the level of national response that Barbaro’s injury has, even though racing’s danger to horses was as real then as it is now.

The e-mails piling up at the veterinary hospital where Barbaro is in recovery express more than a public sense that horseracing’s costs are too high. They reflect a national desire to rally around something uncomplicated—a hurt horse we’re trying, with our love, to heal. (“Barbaro, a Nation Turns Its Sad Eyes to You,” one letter headline in the Times read.) Several of the many letters penned to Barbaro put it more bluntly: “Barbaro, you are the hero America needs—keep up the good healing—God bless all those taking care of you.” (That this letter was purportedly penned by a “canine” friend only underscores the phenomenon.) When I asked Laura Hillenbrand what she made of the deluge of attention, she wrote, by e-mail, “Perhaps America has become so wrapped up in Barbaro’s struggle to survive because, in a time in which we are seeing so much loss in the world, we have a much greater need to see someone pull through. … Perhaps, if this one animal survives, we will feel less helpless, and feel that there is some justice. I think that’s why millions of people, many of whom had never heard of Barbaro before the Preakness, are hanging on every report out of the hospital where the horse is fighting for his life.” Politicians are always trying to figure out how to unite Americans, how to heal the divisive animosity citizens persist in feeling toward one another. Well, the response to Barbaro suggests that it doesn’t take a village. It takes a horse. Preferably a fast one.

Correction, June 5: This article originally described Triple Crown winner War Admiral as “enormous.” In fact, he was not, though he was larger than his rival Seabiscuit. (Return to the corrected sentence.)