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The Human Animal
Richard Hoffer
June 12, 2006
An athlete's suffering can be instructive, even inspiring. But our emotions spill over at the sight of an injured horse
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June 12, 2006

The Human Animal

An athlete's suffering can be instructive, even inspiring. But our emotions spill over at the sight of an injured horse

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Nobody goes to the English Derby--and certainly not Queen Elizabeth II--hoping to see a horse break down on the backstretch. For some reason that remains as gut-wrenching a sight as there is in sports. You think you have a strong stomach? Then where were you when Barbaro's hind leg began flapping sideways in the Preakness two weeks ago? So let's assume that the Queen averted her royal gaze, just as we did our more common open-mouthed gawking, when the 3-year-old colt Horatio Nelson pulled up with a shattered leg on the beautifully mowed turf at Epsom Downs last Saturday.

Unlike Barbaro, Horatio Nelson did not survive the injury and was euthanized shortly after the race. This happens often enough, and always to strong reaction. Nobody likes to see an animal die, or even suffer a little. When Barbaro shattered his leg, there was an outpouring of concerned coverage that persists even in his rehabilitation. The AP still provides a daily bulletin, two weeks later. "Medical update," read a recent one. "Barbaro looks good and is doing well."

It is odd, though certainly not bad, that animals inspire such humanity in us. Odd, because few other sports do. The blood sports permitted us these days--boxing and auto racing--are rarely cause for similar concern. When a boxer is fatally injured (gets euthanized, you might say), there is predictable and highly temporary outcry from legislators, not so much from fans. Similarly, nobody ever turned away from a brightly painted piece of four-wheeled sponsorship slamming into a wall at 200 miles per.

Now why is that? Why are we so queasy when it comes to horses, so indifferent when it comes to our fellow humans? Why such a pang of guilt, mixed with horror, when an animal--an animal!--goes lame, but so little remorse for a fighter pounded senseless (or worse)? For a week after Barbaro's injury The New York Times sports section was basically a veterinarian text. No publication, anywhere, was similarly devoted to medical science when, say, Johnny Owen was killed in the ring. Not that you remember Johnny Owen.

This is not a callousness on our part, or even the difference between horse racing fans and boxing fans (although we can't picture the Queen at the fights, maybe not at Daytona either). By the very possibility of mortality, boxing and auto racing are able to offer the prospect of heroism that other sports can't. Do you think boxing has survived past its 19th-century heyday because purists enjoy debating Mike Tyson's parry and thrust? Do you think NASCAR has become today's money sport because it's so much fun to watch cars turn left?

The element of danger is what makes these sports matter. A fighter knows this as he wraps his hands. A race driver, however confident in the equipment his organization provides, knows that every lap is effectively rewinding his life span.

This self-knowledge is what makes the boxer and the driver matter. It's what makes what they do worthy of our attention, a dare taken in the proof of bravery. Sports might strike some as a foolish arena in which to prove courage, and in any event it's a secondhand courage when it comes to us. But it's still satisfying to know that some of us aren't afraid, that perhaps humans are willing to face down death, be heroic, or at least go incredibly fast in traffic.

Horses, though, that's entirely different. Mister Ed aside, there's never been evidence of much self-knowledge when it comes to the equine set. It may very well be in their nature to run fast, but left to their own devices, few have ever organized derbies to determine the quickest of herd. Despite what you read sometimes, heroism is pretty much beside the point for a horse. Left to their own devices, they eat hay. Some of them, by virtue of a bloodline, get conscripted, and these are the ponies we see saddled up and racing down the lawn turf, sometimes their leg cracking in two so that, basically, they can't even eat hay anymore.

And so of course we avert our gaze, Queen-like, when a horse breaks down. It was absolutely pointless. Whereas we may draw lessons from an unlucky fight--jeez, do people really have such reservoirs of determination that they'll fight to the brink of life?--there is nothing here but the opportunity for guilt. A horse's bravery is hardly the measure of this sport. Unlike us, he had no idea what he was getting into.

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