"He's a horse one of our patients but he's Barbaro, and he won the Derby ... and I need to make sure he makes it through the night.''
Barbaro's nurse, Jamie DeFazio
CAMDEN, S.C. In a week that saw Jane Fonda bashing Bush and couldabeen-president John Kerry ragging on America, it took a real stud to rivet our attention.
Barbaro, the champion racehorse who captured America's heart, finally lost the fight and was euthanized. By the outpouring of condolences and attention, you'd have thought Dale Earnhardt had died.
What was it about that horse? It is a reasonable question to ask.
Our fixation on Barbaro began during the 2006 Kentucky Derby, where the colt won by six and a half lengths. Just moments into the Preakness Stakes, which many expected him to win, he shattered his right rear leg.
It was a catastrophic injury that would have resulted in most horses being euthanized on the spot. But Barbaro was special, not least in his ability to inspire humans.
Thousands if not millions followed his ordeal at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center. Bloggers posted daily reports on Barbaro's progress; media trucks kept vigil in the parking lot; friends and strangers sent gifts, letters, e-mails and prayers.
A trust fund in his name grew to $1.2 million by the time Barbaro died. New Bolton Center doctors say the money will be used for new equipment, treatment and cures.
All this, you say, for a horse? Somebody's horse wins the Kentucky Derby each year. Horses are euthanized every day. Another race, another horse, another broken leg.
How is it that in a time of terror and war, so many could become so emotionally invested in a horse? Maybe the better question is, how could they not?
Here in steeplechase country, where signs forbid horses on sidewalks, it is not hard to find people who speak "Horse.''
One friend I spoke to had been sitting close to the track when Barbaro fell. She learned from Barbaro's ambulance driver that people had stopped on interstate overpasses and held signs wishing the champ Godspeed.
"I've never seen anything like it,'' she said, sniffling.
"I don't cry about my own horses, but Barbaro fought so doggone hard. He really wanted to live.''
It was Barbaro's spirit, apparently contagious, that attracted crowds. Sick and injured people said they found inspiration in the colt who wouldn't quit. His fight became their fight.
Another local couple in the horse-breeding business recalled a time several years ago when one of their thoroughbreds fell ill. Thousands of people sent e-mails, while strangers called just to talk.
Everybody, it seems, has some connection to a horse, whether from childhood or heritage. We've been interacting with horses on some level for thousands of years, when we mostly ate them. Then we noticed that horses were also handy with carts, wagons, chariots and plows. Horses have been patient with our evolution.
Now we admire them, write books and make movies about them. Most children can't wait to ride a horse, and girls emerge from the womb demanding one. Not getting a pony has become a metaphor for childhood disappointment.
I didn't get my pony either.
On another level, Barbaro may have been the right horse at the right time. Americans love a champion, a winner, a striver. We identify ourselves by those lights. But since Sept. 11, 2001, we are plagued with doubt, anxiety and no small fear that we may not win this race against evil. Here to remind us of our weak resolve in that struggle are Fonda and Kerry, whose headlines collided with Barbaro's.
Fonda, who has never met a war she could get behind, showed up on the National Mall to protest the "mean-spirited, vengeful'' Bush administration. Kerry showed up at an economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he couldn't find anything good to say about the nation he once meant to lead.
No wonder we fell in love with a horse.
A country driven mad by partisanship found common cause in Barbaro an utterly neutral reservoir of hope, beauty and determination. For a while, we were all in the race with a champion, and, for a while, we were champions, too.