ELKTON — The making of a legend has a distinct sound, its own special rhythm.
The vet hears it in the thump-thump of a horse's heart. The women in hats and men in jackets hear it in the undulating singsong of the track announcer. The railbird hears it in the beating of the hooves on the dirt track.
We learned yesterday there's a rhythm to a horse's life, as well. The spring is a time full of cheers and rose garlands and winning betting slips. And the winter ... well, we don't need to see a calendar to know that winter is upon us.
Barbaro's fight to recover from a horrific track injury suffered during the Preakness ended yesterday. News of his euthanasia was cutting, and today in classrooms, chat rooms and boardrooms all over the globe, emotions are raw.
Barbaro prepared for his historic Kentucky Derby run at Fair Hill Training Center, a vast country club-like spread near where Maryland meets Delaware. In the springtime, the hills and fields here are an all-you-can-eat buffet for young thoroughbreds. In the winter, it's a different story.
Not long after a dedicated veterinarian was preparing a deadly dosage of anesthetic 20 miles away, there wasn't a living soul to be seen at Fair Hill. Winter chased many equine residents to Florida. Snow dusted the track and the trails. And old hoofprints were frozen, preserved for now in hardened mud and dirt.
But what happens next spring, when the land thaws and new horses line up to retrace Barbaro's prints? What will we think of this stunning champ as the seasons change and new young horses full of life and energy blaze toward a finish line?
Depending on who's doing the talking, Barbaro was a hero, a champion, a fighter. He was a role model, a freak of nature and an inspiration. For now, he can be all of these things. We'll need many more springs and many more winters to fully understand his legacy. The guess here is that Barbaro will be remembered far differently from other great racehorses who came before him.
"People love greatness," Dr. Dean Richardson, chief of surgery at the New Bolton Center, succinctly put it yesterday, and he's right. But greatness will not be what distinguishes Barbaro from other champions.
Barbaro's performance last May at Churchill Downs will no doubt become an integral part of the Kentucky track's lore, but the second he was loaded into a trailer and carted away from Pimlico, his life story left the racetrack - taking with it the hopes, prayers and dreams of so many.
He represented those qualities you like not just about American sport, but about Americana. You don't have to be the very best to capture our hearts, but if you want to be the very best and you fight to be the very best, we'll give you our best.
Certainly, there's something about Barbaro that will always be perfect. The lasting images of him will always have a lush green background, the spring sun reflecting off his vibrant brown coat. Seasons change; photographs do not. When we lose someone before he reaches his potential - a movie star, an artist, a musician, and yes, a racehorse - the accomplishments aren't tarnished, they're mythicized.
Time will likely erode some of the passion and sentiment, but for now, Barbaro feels like something much bigger than a great champion like Man o' War, or Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Citation, much more important than heart-tuggers such as Ruffian or Seabiscuit. But tomorrow, The Today Show has five other heart-warming stories that are designed to capture our interest and inspire our lives.
At the track, six wins - including just one jewel of the Triple Crown - are not the makings of a legend. Race fans and turf historians will always wonder "What if?" but Barbaro's true legacy may be written by those outside of the sport.
Racing champs don't typically transcend the track, and only the very best are still talked about by casual fans years later. But Barbaro is a unique case because the people who will be talking most aren't typical racing fans. Barbaro's fan base includes a passionate segment of the population that never would've flocked to Secretariat. They don't care about pole positions and quarter times.
This crossover appeal built Barbaro into quite the phenomenon of 2006, making minor celebrities out of everyone associated with him. The passion and fanaticism that surrounded him had nothing to do with racing and everything to do with fighting. That's why most people will remember Barbaro for his heart and his will to survive, not for the powerful legs that thrust him to the most impressive Kentucky Derby victory in 60 years.
The hills surrounding the New Bolton Center are still covered with a thin layer of snow. Soon it will thaw and people will drive by and won't think twice about the hospital's most famous patient.
For those who scour the sports pages every morning, Barbaro was quite a horse, and he'll be remembered as such. For so many others, he was so many other things. He'll be remembered with hyperbole and aggrandizement by some. Even if it fades with time, the important thing is he'll be remembered.