This is the obituary I’ve been waiting to write for six months — which was at least five months too long.
Barbaro has finally been put down. It seems the whole country was pulling for him to make a miraculous recovery. Not surprisingly, since he had cheated death twice before: once from the massively fractured right leg that ended his racing career and in past times would have ended his life, and once from laminitis, the same disease that felled Triple Crown winners Affirmed and the magnificent Secretariat.
He developed an abcess in his left hoof (the one that had had laminitis) a week ago, followed by yet more surgery, followed by the discovery of laminitis in both his front legs, leaving him, as his surgeon noted , “with not a good leg to stand on.” Unable to rest, the colt was clearly in significant pain, and the owners decided that they could not subject him to any more, and had him euthanized.
The entire case of Barbaro raises significant ethical questions, most notably: when is enough, enough? By all accounts, laminitis is a painful disease. And surely, both the broken leg and the abcess would be painful. And yes, he would have been on painkillers, but still… his handlers insisted all along that he was not in pain. A horse cannot talk; what if they were wrong?
And there is the question of resources: Barbaro underwent nearly two dozen surgeries and other procedures. Yes, it is the owners’ money to use as they see fit. But is it really wise to spend so much in such an elaborate attempt to keep one horse alive? Especially from such devastating injuries? As much as I love them, horses are not people. Measures which may be justifiable to keep, say, a newborn alive may not be justifiable to keep a thoroughbred alive.
Then there is the question of precedent. We may be dangerously close to breeding horses that are lightning fast and china fragile. If we are willing to go through all this for this horse, what will we do for the next good horse that breaks down? And should we? Barbaro’s treatment has pushed the boundaries of what is possible. What is in the best long-term interests of the breed may be another thing altogether.
Aside from the ethical questions, there is simply the sadness of the loss of what was surely going to be one of the great ones. I have seen the Triple Crown winners and other major race horses since I was about ten : I fully expected Barbaro to be in their league. (Well, maybe not Secretariat: he was in a class all his own.) After his phenomenal career, we expected Seattle Slew; we got Ruffian.
There is talk of burying him at Churchill Downs. I hope they do that; the site of his greatest triumph, it was the place where for a shining moment all of us caught our breath as possibly the greatest horse in a generation thundered past. Barbaro was in the house, and all was right with the world.
I don’t fall in love with horses easily, anymore; Ruffian taught me the pitfalls of giving your affection to large animals with slender legs. But Barbaro made me fall in love with a horse again. I’m glad he’s no longer in pain. But as his owners said in a press conference Monday, “Grief is the price we all pay for love.”
Rest in peace, Barbaro. You fought a good fight.