Idol chatter

Let the others rely on ticking grandfather clocks, sunrises, rooster crows and good-morning kisses. I have something so much more dependable by which to track the passage of time, and I'll never need to wind up anything or change a battery. We've reached the point where the entire world can be viewed and measured by the incessant and inconsequential Barbaro health updates.

The latest was issued Thursday by the fine docs at the New Bolton Center, informing us that Barbaro is scaling back on the pain medication and his appetite is good. And then Barbaro Nation issued a huge sigh of relief and ran to the store to buy a bushel of apples to put in the mail.


You see, a funny thing happened when you got lost in the football season. The most beloved athlete in America is suddenly a three-legged horse who might be just a surgery or two away from euthanasia. And because of a nation of suburban housewives - people who'd give Oprah the presidency if they had the opportunity - the rest of us are subjected to endless health updates.

It might not initially make sense. Most sports fans I know aren't clicking refresh on their Web browser 12 times a day to read about Barbaro's oatmeal breakfast - but someone is. In fact, Barbaro was the Net's second-most popular athlete last year, according to AOL's search numbers. So, what gives?


"There's all sorts of research that shows we root for the underdog," says Dr. Dan Wann, a professor at Murray State - about three hours from Churchill Downs - who has studied the psychology of the sports fan for the past two decades. "And I think that athletes who are either forced to end their career early, due to injury or perhaps a tragedy or death - I'm thinking of Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, Thurman Munson - upon their passing or their early retirement, they're afforded a loftier status. ... We do have a special place in our hearts for the fallen."

Usually, when the sports fan talks about loving a horse, it's because he's holding a betting slip in his hand and there's a correlation between the financial and the emotional investment. But we're talking about a horse here, one who'd probably trade the nation's endless idolatry for a couple of sugar cubes.

Web worship

There's a Web site where fans light electronic candles (read: fake) because they think it's keeping the horse alive. Yesterday, there were more than 5,000 candles burning for Barbaro.

He has several profiles, and if you look him up on - the Net's popular video-hosting site - you'll find more than 400 results, mostly tribute videos. Fans make cheesy montages with Barbaro photos accompanied by bad music. We're talking Tina Turner, Phil Collins, Bryan Adams, New Found Glory.

There's a children's book due out this spring called Barbaro: America's Horse, a wristband you can buy and a Beanie Baby toy of Barbaro. And there's a model figurine, too, a collectible that sold out almost immediately (available on eBay for $75, though).

And the message boards ... oh, the message boards ...

"We're social creatures and we seek out social activities. And we also like to identify with things that are larger than the self. Well, put those two things together and you've got sports," says Wann, the psychology professor. "When you're in the stands, you're there with tens of thousands of others, connected to something so much bigger than just yourself."


And so they've built their own online communities to connect with others who share a similar passion for a horse they've never met. The Internet message board is this century's sociological petri dish, where like-minded individuals gather and cultivate together, pretending every other fungus is inferior.

They call themselves FOBs - Internet slang for Friends of Barbaro, everyday slang for Fanatical Oprah Backers. Their comments would be beautiful if they were talking about a child or a soldier or anything other than a horse who lives in a sling.

"He's a warrior, a strapping, powerful, mighty hero, that refuses to give up! God bless you Barbaro!!!!" reads one.

"Barbaro has such intelligence," reads another, "he knows and can transmit his hurting and he knows how to adapt to all the procedures he must endure. He is blessed by God and he is an inspiration to all."

I swear, these people would put him in public office if Barbaro could gain the strength to raise his right hoof and swear on a Bible.

They have timed vigils, twice a day, in living rooms all across suburbia. And they visit the New Bolton Center's Web site to write personal e-mails to their hero.


"Dear Barbaro, I sure got myself in a heap of trouble today," one reads - and I'm not making this up. "I tried to sign on to AOL and got a pop-up that said to call customer service. ... I ask the guy why I could not sign on and he said because my account had been canceled. I ask why, and he said, 'because you made a death threat.' ... It seems that some nut showed up on the Barbaro message board yesterday and said, 'Just shoot that horse in the head.' Well it made me so mad I responded with, 'I would rather shoot you in the head.' Bobby, did you know that he reported me to AOL and told them I made a threat on his life?"

Friends of 'Bobby'

Oh, and by the way, they call him Bobby, which is more familiar and makes them feel much more intimate. With a horse.

But they aren't all soft and cuddly. They can be ruthless. Earlier this week, Vic Zast wrote an editorial for suggesting that Barbaro be euthanized. Zast is a veteran horse owner, breeder and regular contributor to The Blood-Horse and his opinion was hardly absurd, not when you consider all the surgeries and the mounting odds Barbaro continually faces. The mere suggestion, though, sent such shock waves through Barbaro Nation, you would have thought All My Children were canceled.

"So what to do????" wrote one fan on the message board. "I say show Barbaro the article and then let him show this writer who the smarter one is!"

Please don't misunderstand - I like Barbaro and find him to be an important symbol of perseverance. I was on the rail at Churchill when he flew by, en route to the biggest Kentucky Derby win in 60 years. And I was on the rail again at Pimlico last May, when he started hobbling and pulled up lame. That Preakness is still the most astonishing and unforgettable thing I've witnessed at a sporting event.


But the fascination surrounding Barbaro goes beyond a passing interest, and it's not immediately clear why his celebrity has surpassed so many human sports stars (he even won's tongue-in-cheek 2006 Sportshuman of the Year tournament).

Barbaro has got more middle-aged housewives in his corner than Ellen DeGeneres and Dr. Phil combined, and it's not that they love him in spite of being a horse. They love him because he's a horse. His celebrity no longer has anything to do with sports, and everything to do with the fact that as long as he's an ailing animal, he can do no wrong.

The popular thinking here goes like this: As long as Barbaro isn't dying, he's fighting to live. It's the kind of Hallmark inspiration the Lifetime network would like to bottle up and sell in infomercials.

Of course, the cynics from the sports world decry this innocence as naivete. They don't understand how you can root for an animal, an "athlete" with no discernible personality or character. They giggle and laugh at Barbaro's fans, who have unyielding blind faith for an athlete they've never met and don't even know.

And maybe that's the point where it should dawn on them that they don't really know the athletes they root for, and they'll never meet Tom Brady, and they'll never know what Alex Rodriguez is really like. They'll hang pictures of Sidney Crosby in their living room, and they'll check the injury list 20 times a day at work because Grant Hill is on their fantasy team.

And they'll visit their own message boards and say their own prayers and throw money and hopes and emotions into something that isn't really capable of loving them back. Because --- horse or human - this is what we do.


Yep, the loyalty of the sports fan - I'll set my watch by it every day of the week.