In this interview, Steve Twomey, author of “Barbaro’s Legacy,” discusses how interest in the horse extends outside the racetrack
Why do you think Barbaro appealed to people who wouldn't normally care about horseracing?
I hate to put it this way, but in an age of reality television this became a very comprehensible, digestible story. It was a tragedy unfolding before people's eyes: would this guy make it, would he survive? Here he was literally at the peak of his profession and within 90 seconds his life is on the line. I think the fight to save a good guy appealed to people. And the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes transcend the normal horse audience, they become much bigger events for the whole country. What also grabbed people was that what happened to him occurred on live television with tens of millions of people watching, and it was so graphic and so horrible that I think people got caught up in the notion of the poor animal and what would happen to him, and they followed the story. This happens to horses all the time, but it doesn't happen on national television, on a beautiful Saturday, with a horse that had been anointed as the next great thing in racing. I also think that the Jacksons come across as really decent people. They're not the sort of arrogant, pushy people often associated with sports. And Dr. Richardson also became something of a folk hero, doing his best to save this animal. The story had a lot of elements coming together to make it compelling, but in the end it was just a tight, focused story of tragedy.
What appealed to you about Barbaro's story?
When I first proposed this to the magazine it looked like he was going to be this miraculous, back-from-the-brink-of-disaster hero. Things were looking so good, and it looked like it was going to be a miracle. The old adage of "they shoot horses, don't they?" was being disproved. And then, unfortunately, it all took this incredibly fast turn. But I still thought it was a great story of people trying to save someone who normally wouldn't have been saved.
Are you a horse person?
I'm not. My sister owns a horse, that's about as close as I've come. I have ridden, but I don't own a horse, don't go to the track. This story was an education for me.
What did you learn?
I learned how proud the veterinary profession is that they showed people they could save horses. And also what a close-knit fraternity they are. They all know each other. You can't call a veterinarian on the other side of the country who doesn't know who Dean Richardson is. I also had heard, over and over again, "Well, Barbaro is special. You look into his eyes, and you just know he's special." And I thought, yeah, sure, it's a horse. But when the Jacksons took me over to the stable, there in the ICU was the horse, and you really could tell that he was a special horse. He was very frisky, even though he was so badly injured. I saw him and I suddenly realized what people were talking about. Everyone said Dr. Richardson and the Jacksons were aided by the fact that this horse was so tough. Of course you have to be something special to win the Derby, and after this happened the same qualities that made him a good racehorse made him a good patient. The doctors would look at him and he would have this look, like, "Stay cool. I'm under control." And they knew things were turning south on them when, in the last weekend of January, they looked into his eyes and realized he wasn't there. But I was really struck that this mythical image of a horse with personality turned out to be true.
You say in the story that an average of one horse a day has to be put down after a racing injury. Is there an argument to be made that horseracing is animal cruelty?
That is certainly debated a lot in the profession. The fatality rate is of enormous concern to the industry, and there are people out there who believe that horses naturally wouldn't be engaged in the kind of things we ask them to do for our entertainment. So the industry is trying very hard to cut down on the fatality rate, because, first of all, it's just not good business. You take the kids to the track and they see a horse break a leg, that's going to hurt. This is a pretty old issue in racing, whether it's cruel to them or not.
What do you think, personally?
Not being a horse person, it never bothered me, and I guess I never thought much about it before this. I had no idea that breakdowns were as common as they are, but knowing that now, it gives me pause. One of the arguments that's been made is that in this country we tend to breed for speed, not for endurance and durability, and that has led to horses that are more susceptible to injury. Veterinarians are coming up with ways of forecasting whether a horse is at risk, and that can't hurt.
Is it legitimate to justify the danger of racing by saying the horses love it?
People have said to me that a horse runs for two reasons: one, that it's their principle means of defense and, two, they just like it. Whether they like to run as long and as often as people think, I don't know.
How did you feel when you heard Barbaro had died?
I had gotten some sense on that last weekend that things were not good. I wish he could have made it, because it would have been such a happy ending, but I think everyone involved agreed that the doctors hadn't quit too soon. But I had seen him only two weeks before, and he looked so bright, so intelligent, so tough, and it really was amazing how quickly he sank.
Will the things veterinarians have learned from Barbaro help other horses?
I think they already are helping other horses. I don't think there's any doubt that this advances their knowledge of how to fix fractures, how to anesthetize a horse, the use of antibiotics to treat his infections, the use of the various footwear he had when he had laminitis. I went back to several people after he died and asked, "Does this change your feeling that this was a great moment for veterinary medicine? And they all say, "No, this is still good. Not only did we learn, but we think we made the public aware that if a horse breaks a leg, all is not lost."