The Human Animal

An athlete's suffering can be instructive, even inspiring. But our emotions spill over at the sight of an injured horse
June 11, 2006

Nobody goes to theEnglish Derby--and certainly not Queen Elizabeth II--hoping to see a horsebreak down on the backstretch. For some reason that remains as gut-wrenching asight as there is in sports. You think you have a strong stomach? Then wherewere you when Barbaro's hind leg began flapping sideways in the Preakness twoweeks ago? So let's assume that the Queen averted her royal gaze, just as wedid our more common open-mouthed gawking, when the 3-year-old colt HoratioNelson pulled up with a shattered leg on the beautifully mowed turf at EpsomDowns last Saturday.

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

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

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

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

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

Thisself-knowledge is what makes the boxer and the driver matter. It's what makeswhat 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 inany event it's a secondhand courage when it comes to us. But it's stillsatisfying to know that some of us aren't afraid, that perhaps humans arewilling to face down death, be heroic, or at least go incredibly fast intraffic.

Horses, though,that's entirely different. Mister Ed aside, there's never been evidence of muchself-knowledge when it comes to the equine set. It may very well be in theirnature to run fast, but left to their own devices, few have ever organizedderbies 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, andthese are the ponies we see saddled up and racing down the lawn turf, sometimestheir leg cracking in two so that, basically, they can't even eat hayanymore.

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

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"No hustlers would have messed with him anyway.That's how good he was." --STEVE MIZERAK OBITUARY, PAGE 22

PHOTOILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)