By Frank Vespe, That's Amore Stable blog
It's the sort of news that typically generates exactly no coverage in the mainstream media and not much in racing media: a three year-old of modest accomplishment, on the extreme fringes of the Kentucky Derby conversation, runs in a Florida Derby dramatically weakened by the defection of the two best sophomores training in that state this year. The horse finishes a middling fourth, beaten about six lengths for all the money.
Except when that horse is Lentenor, full brother to Kentucky Derby hero and laminitis poster-horse Barbaro. Lentenor's entry in the Florida Derby occasioned, among other things, an article in the New York Times (taking a brief respite from ferreting out every bad thing that's happened in racing in the last year), coverage in the Daily Racing Form, and two posts on the Blood-Horse blog devoted to Barbaro's siblings. Those two posts have generated more than 400 comments.
Barbaro's two currently racing brothers, Lentenor and older bro' Nicanor, have yet to accomplish much on the racetrack: each has broken his maiden, and Nicanor has won one allowance race. From a racing perspective, they fall into the amorphous blob of "horses with some talent whose future is uncertain."
What sets them apart, however, is that they have, because of their connection to Barbaro, a super-passionate fan base that follows them in the same obsessive way as, say, Green Bay Packers fans (minus the cheeseheads). The comments on the Blood-Horse blog are a fascinating - and, for racing message boards, unusual - mix, ranging from the obviously knowledgeable and well-informed, to the "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" crowd, all the way to the "I don't know anything but looovvveee the brothers" group. It's not, in other words, too unlike the crowd you might find at a racetrack on a Saturday: everything from hard-bitten old-timers to newbies out for a beer and a good time.
Enhanced news coverage aside, racing's response has largely been a somewhat bemused smile and a shrug of the shoulders. As one industry insider said to me about someone else, "She's one of those Friends of Barbaro-types, but that's OK."
Which is too bad. Barbaro, it turns out, is the gift that keeps on giving, and racing ought to be trying to figure out what the Barbaro experience - and the continuing passion of his fans - teaches us about ourselves.
Of course, we all know the outlines of the Barbaro tale: freakish monster on the turf, switches to dirt, runs off with the Kentucky Derby by a record margin to remain undefeated, injured in the first jumps of the Preakness, endures a highly publicized fight to survive while surrounded by loving owners and care-givers, finally succumbs to laminitis, spirited away from us James Dean-like - forever young, forever full of promise.
It's a tale that, in its particulars, won't likely be told again. But the commitment of his fans - now more than three years after his death - is about more than the details. In fact, there are three elements to the story that racing ought to take to heart.
First, there are a lot of people who aren't likely to become big bettors who nevertheless could be big fans - and that's something we ought to encourage. For one thing, lots of big fans betting just a little still can add up to a lot of new money in the pools. For another, the person who goes out to the races, even if he or she doesn't wager, still pays admission and buys food - puts money into the racing economy. Moreover, one of racing's problems is that the tracks seem dead, even when lots of people are following them on simulcast; putting more fannies in the seats is a way to shake the moribund, "sky is falling" attitude that pervades the sport. And, of course, every whale starts out a minnow; most newcomers will wash out altogether or never become real bettors, but a few might.
The second element is that racing takes place at the intersection of horses and people. It's not solely about either. What made the Barbaro story so compelling was not just the horse fighting for his life but also the connections and their commitment to his well-being. In an increasingly animal-friendly environment, racing ought to be highlighting the bonds between owners, trainers, and horses - consciously seeking to demonstrate that the Jacksons' commitment to Barbaro was of a piece with the love that many in racing feel for their horses and not, as some seem to believe, some freakish aberration.
The third element is that the Barbaro story was told and retold in minute detail. People could follow, practically in real time, every twist and turn in the tale. Barbaro's fans could feel as if they were there in the trenches with the horse's connections, willing him to recovery. "Grief is the price we pay for love," Gretchen Jackson observed, and millions were willing - eager, almost - to pay it.
Obviously, not every horse is Barbaro. But at every track, there are hard hitters with interesting tales who develop a bit of a fan following. That following typically develops despite the nearly complete absence of information available about most horses and most connections, despite racing's steadfast refusal to promote individual horses.
Information blackouts are the normal state of racing. Witness the famous Charlie Wittingham comment about treating owners like mushrooms - in the dark and covered in manure. Or the long, sordid history of betting coups engineered by connections hiding a horse behind a bad race in order to cash in later.
Of course, fans shouldn't expect - and aren't entitled - to know everything that's going on with every horse.
But it seems to me that one lesson from Barbaro and his sibs is that, if we expect fans to care about the game, we need to invite them inside it more often. We need to show them just exactly how well cared for most horses are, and how emotionally invested most connections are. We need fans to have a deeper and more personal understanding of what it takes to get a horse to the races and how many things have to go just right before you visit the winners' circle. We need them to understand that the pick-four or pick-six is a piece - but just a piece - of the overall picture of racing.
Regardless of whether he ever accomplishes anything of significance on the racetrack, Lentenor will have many passionate fans cheering him every step of the way. That, ultimately, might be the most valuable contribution to racing that he could make.