We need heroes

by Mickey Charles

Yes, we need heroes. We always have and always will. That is the underlying premise of one of television?s more successful offerings and it is critical that "we save the cheerleader", Claire Bennet?at least that someone does. And, is not Hiro Nakamura, another of the many characters in the NBC hit Heroes and a young man of courage, valiant, unafraid, daring, determined and adventurous? Our kind of guy; our sort of hero. Is there anyone out there that does not root for the underdog, the little fellow, the dark horse at one time or the other, maybe even most of the time, if not all the time?

It is what we do as Americans and sports fans. We need heroes. We need those whom most of us can never be, whom we admire, fantasize about being, adore, idolize and respect, often love. And, how wonderful it is when those whom we applaud actually do heroic things.

Jackie Robinson challenged the world of baseball and Walter O?Malley, the then president and owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, said, ?It is time.? Stepping up to the plate when the opposing dugout was sending black cats out onto the field was not easy. Stealing second or third, however and happily, was. Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash trying to help earthquake victims, Pat Tillman gave his life for his country and Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters the sport has ever known, forsake the opportunity to set countless records to serve his nation. Arthur Ashe furthering civil rights, and Billie Jean King women's rights. Mia Hamm became a role model for countless young girls in the 1990s, when future soccer stars were anxious to emulate her.

We need heroes.

Ours is a society that dotes upon them, enthusiastically lauds their achievements and forgives them for their failures. We laugh and cry with them, eat their cereals, wear their colognes and lotions and adorn our bodies ? from sneakers to hats ? with clothing bearing their name(s). They have the ability to fill vacuous spaces in droll lives.

Ted Williams
Ted Williams played 19 seasons in the major leagues and was the last player to hit .400 (.406 in 1941).
The list is endless. Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Williams, Jackie, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Clemente, Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Tillman, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ashe, King, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Richard Petty, Jim Thorpe, the entire 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, Mark Spitz, Lance Armstrong, Jesse Owens, Hamm. It is a roll call of greatness and just the tip of the iceberg.

The once defined Sport of Kings, horse racing, is no different. It has seen its share of bold-spiritedness, iron-heartedness, courage, bravery, tenacity and the power of the will with Secretariat, Man O'War, Citation, Seabiscuit and others, but never as with one that seized and captured all recently, Barbaro. For many, it began with an introduction in late 2005, when he won the Laurel Futurity at the Laurel Park. For others at that time, Barbaro was just another thoroughbred with much to prove. The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, however, was racing?s version of the opening of an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical. Show time! And, show he did, still undefeated, passing the field with so much ease and speed that it was surprising many of the others in the race did not merely stop to watch with the rest of us. A 6? length victory at the 132nd Derby, the largest winning margin since 1946, and his sixth straight win, in front of 157,530 and millions watching at home.

The Preakness, Belmont Stakes and Triple Crown lay ahead, the first to do it since Affirmed in 1978, a near certainty although, sadly, we will never know what might have been. We only know that which was. Humans talk about breeding but only occasionally do we give meaning to it, only now and then do we nurture and reach the civility, behavior and bearing that the word denotes. On the other hand, the world of thoroughbreds does so with seeming regularity and some transcend that which results in applause and garlands of roses around their necks in the winner?s circle?they capture our hearts.

Barbaro won his first six races before his devastating injury in the Preakness.
Barbaro did that and, in the process, appropriated our hearts, captured our prayers, penetrated our very being and fostered a daily vigil centered about his fight to live with more meaning than his name in the record books of Kentucky Derby winners will ever indicate. It was at the Preakness that he broke through the gate early, pulled up by his jockey, Edgar Prado and the outrider in an instant. After getting re-loaded, the race began and this magnificent steed, the foregone and predicted winner, was passed by all the others who were supposed to follow, as Barbaro struggled to stop on only three legs, his right hind leg injured, the right rear ankle, his hoof dangling like a shoe you would be trying to shake loose and dislodge from your foot without touching it. It was not pretty. It was frightening.

Confusion and concern followed. Several fractures and his pastern bone in seeming pieces. With a police escort, an ambulance took Barbaro to the facility at New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania where Dr. Dean Richardson and his staff would attend to him. You know the rest. Barbaro was euthanized 278 days after May 20th.

We need heroes. Barbaro became one. He was Pegasus come to life, and that life was taken before he was able to show us how far and fast he could really fly. He invaded our daily lives and we watched him fight as the graph of his life went up, then down, then up again. He had run to win and now he was fighting to live, to, we wanted to believe, run again. To sire more than another Barbaro or two. We were clinging to hope for that is what we have, hope. We then added prayers. For a horse. Children sent him a carrots. A horse. Prayer vigils were held. For a horse. Lighted candles, get well cards that he could not read, bags of feed. For a horse. A wearer of the laurel, a hero, struggling against the odds to survive.

Barbaro was more than a champion, a vanquisher of others that came out of the gate at the same instant he did. He was a fighter, a warrior with style and class, a look in those bigger than life eyes of his that said, ?Hey, don?t worry, it hurts a bit but I?ll be fine.? He gave millions a reason or two, maybe more, to care, empathize and admire. Believe it or not, we identified and admired, we related to the equine aristocracy of our planet. We can never know the pain and anguish of Roy and Gretchen Jackson, breeders and owners of Barbaro nor can we know how Dr. Richardson felt when the final decision was made. My guess is that we don?t want to. That would be too much.

We need heroes and we had one. His name was Barbaro. He lived up to his billing and stature and showed us the meaning of guts, a fighting spirit and endurance, a tenacity to live. He almost won his race with life?almost. He will be missed and other heroes will follow but this one will always be remembered, more for what he did off the track than on it.

Are all heroes like this one? You gotta be kidding!

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