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Essayist Reflects on Racehorse Barbaro’s Image

February 2, 2007 at 6:50 PM EST
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ROGER ROSENBLATT, NewsHour Essayist: The best thing about the picture of Barbaro in the New York Times this week is that the horse is standing. Standing is the way we want to see horses, those historically favored animals with whom one associates spiritual virtues.

Horses are seen as imposing yet modest, confident yet temperate. Jonathan Swift thought them rational and judicious, as well. And peaceful; their eyes read peaceful. And stoic; their faces read stoic.

But it’s the physical creature that grabs our attention first and last: 1,000 pounds, 1,500 or more of thick, long neck, shoulders and haunches. All that serene power resting atop shatterable legs, as Barbaro’s right hind leg shattered in the Preakness, and the nation otherwise absorbed in war and baseball turned its collective sympathies toward a fallen horse.

A fallen horse: unthinkable, except when it happens. Falling is not supposed to reside in the nature of the beast.

Of a horse, especially a racehorse, a thoroughbred, for crying out loud, one expects only speed and fluidity. The animal’s muscles ripple, its hooves, like stones, beat down on a track. That’s the way horses are meant to be. So whenever they collapse, people’s hearts collapse, too.

Something about the nobility one infers from merely looking at them and something about this conjunction of extreme power and extreme fragility — he’s up, he’s down — put down for the count. Horses provide the illusion of endless majesty and the reality of frail underpinnings, a little like some of our institutions, a little like us.

No wonder Richard III offered his no kingdom for but one of them. It was an even trade.

Barbaro won the Kentucky Derby just before this picture was taken, and that is how one wishes to see him: before the fall, caught in profile at a moment of glory, and standing without a tremor at the top of his game.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.