Seeing Seabiscuit

Sometimes life snatches us from our intended course and sets us on another so far from what we had envisioned that we never could have imagined it before the snatching.

I had thought that the first piece I would write after relocating to the glories of northern California would be about that, and those. But it was not to be. Instead, my attention and heart have been yanked and refocused to a corner of southeastern Pennsylvania where the first true contender since 1978 for Thoroughbred horse racing’s Triple Crown now is. Instead of preparing the third jewel in that crown, he is in the fight of his life–for his life–and he is winning.

For anyone who has been on another planet since May 20, 2006, the horse’s name is Barbaro. His right hind leg was broken in three places–in one of those, the bone splintered into over twenty pieces. All of this was caused by a fatal misstep, that no one could have seen coming or prevented, at the start of the race known as the Preakness, second jewel in the Triple Crown. After undergoing over 6 hours of surgery, Barbaro remains, nearly two weeks later, in intensive care, his life still hanging in the balance, although day-to-day reports have all been inspiringly good.

Edgar Prado, Barbaro’s jockey and, as it turned out, life saver, heard the leg break and began pulling Barbaro up within an instant. I heard my heart break, echoed by the breaking of millions of others–every heart that was there that day, except for one. The one of Barbaro himself.

Heart is the essence of this horse. Even in the throes of excruciating pain and seeming defeat, Barbaro was nothing but heart. He was calm despite the anything-but-calm scene swirling around him, his leg grotesquely twisted and dangling. He was cooperative. He paid attention to and obeyed his handlers. His head was high and he was alert as he watched the other horses, the ones he would have been beating had cruel fate not intervened, race by him. He was the quintessential champion, even if he had been sidelined. And now, day after day, he is still all heart and still the champion as he accepts his fate of total confinement, with dignity and upbeat attitude known only among the great.

The outpouring of compassion for this horse, comparatively little known outside of racing circles until the fateful Preakness afternoon, continues to astound. Message boards have cropped up all over the internet and continue to process hundreds and thousands of well wishers’ messages that are still pouring in at a speed rivaling Barbaro’s own when he won the Kentucky Derby.

The message board at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, home of the New Bolton Center where Barbaro is being treated, was so overwhelmed with the volume of messages it continued to receive 5 days after its initiation, that it had to shut down for the 4 days over the Memorial Day weekend so that its designers could, presumably, figure out how to redesign it to better handle the extraordinary load.

Posters to the message boards run the gamut in age and background. Some are horse owners and some are in the racing business themselves. Most are not. Most are ordinary people who have never owned a horse, but who were so struck by what happened to Barbaro and the aftermath that they haven’t been able to resume the normalcy of their lives since. From kids to octogenarians–everyone is affected.

A 49 year-old man started his message with, “I can’t believe I’m writing to a horse…” and then went on, losing any self-consciousness he might have had, addressing ‘the horse’ as if he were a close friend of the human sort. And this keeps happening. Something bigger is going on here.

The mother of a little boy, about to undergo his own surgery and recovery period, wrote to say that Barbaro has become her son’s role model as he prepares for what lies ahead.

Other people, animal lovers and often owners of cats and dogs, write messages including their animals in the sending of well wishes to Barbaro. They see the commonality in all human-animal relationships and can relate to Barbaro and his human family through their own.

So many facets to this story, each of them worthy of elaborating on, but the one that draws me back again and again is the parallel to the Seabiscuit story, now familiar to present-day generations, thanks to Laura Hillenbrand’s beyond wonderful book, and the subsequent movie.

At the time of Seabiscuit, just as now in Barbaro’s time, the country was reeling from large scale disasters. Then it was The Great Depression. Now it is another great depression, not of the economic kind, but of the kind that robs a nation of hope and fills it instead with frustration, fear, and despair with no foreseeable way out. Just as Seabiscuit did for the people of his time, Barbaro has lifted us out of our hopeless malaise and given us something to believe in, to root for, and to pin our hopes on. He has become a rallying point for all that is compassionate, inspiring, and good. Never have we needed that more than now.

I like to amuse myself by thinking of the possibilities of reincarnation–for me this is not a stretch. In a NY Times article, Peter Brette, the assistant trainer for Barbaro, said that while not normally given to spiritual assessments of horses, an old friend of his from Ireland–a woman–said she looked into Barbaro’s eyes and saw an old soul. She said he–Barbaro–had been here before. Brette believed her. So do I.

I’m taking this one step further. Could Barbaro be the reincarnated Seabiscuit? It all makes sense to me. Think about it.

For all that he accomplished here the first time around, Seabiscuit was not able to achieve 3 things: 1) he never got the chance to run in and win the Kentucky Derby, 2) he was not classically beautiful in a horse world where beauty reigns, 3) he never sired successful progeny.

There is no question that Barbaro has Seabiscuit’s heart. It makes sense that if he were to come back for another round, he would want to finish off those loose ends and claim what should have been his before.

So, now, if that’s the case, he has decidedly won the Derby and the beauty pageant. There is one thing left and, he’s on his way to doing that once he gets out of the hospital and figuratively back on his feet.

Once that happens and he has sired another–or others–approaching his greatness, and I believe that will happen, despite the warnings by Barbaro’s vets to not be overly optimistic, I will have to believe that we have witnessed a reincarnation. I wonder if Peter Brette would agree with me on that. I bet his Irish freind would.

Go, Barbaro, Go!! Hear the crowd screaming your name as you fly down that home stretch. Show us again who you really are!

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