CultureSaturday 05.14.22

How a Kentucky Derby-winning Racehorse’s Injury Captivated America

On May 20, 2006, a horse named Barbaro lined up against eight other competitors in the Preakness Stakes. The undefeated Barbaro captured the nation’s attention after winning the Derby two weeks earlier with the greatest margin of victory in 60 years, and he was favored to take the second jewel of horse racing’s triple crown as well. But shortly after the contest was underway, Barbaro suffered terrible injuries to his right hind leg, taking him out of the race.

The horrifying damage to the horse, including dislocated joints and over 20 broken bones, shocked television audiences and started an international recovery watch, with millions of people obsessively following Barbaro’s fate. Horses die if they can’t stand properly, so Barbaro faced long odds.

Over the next eight months, the press brought almost daily news reports about Barbaro’s progress. Tens of thousands of get-well-soon cards and letters were sent to the facility where Barbaro convalesced. This wasn’t the first time Americans expressed emotional support for a racehorse during a period of national difficulty — fans watched eagerly for news of Seabiscuit during the Great Depression, and Secretariat and Ruffian drew audience’s attention during Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War. Barbaro’s fame coincided with the early years of the Iraq War.

For a time it looked like he might return to health. But in January 2007, irreversible complications and the ensuing pain meant Barbaro had to be euthanized.

Barbaro’s death stunned millions and made national headlines for days. That spotlight also created a backlash, as observers criticized the attention the horse was receiving compared to the mounting horrors of America’s war on Iraq.

LZ and Will talk about how Barbaro’s saga might be covered and discussed in the present.

The Long Game