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.
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
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.
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
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
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
> Get a fresh
version of Scorecard every weekday online at SI.com/scorecard.