We talk about it all the time in sports, how the great ones not only have the talent that reaches out and grabs you by the retina, but also the intangibles that separate and distinguish them from those who are merely blessed with exceptional physical ability.
Michael Jordan had it. His skills on a basketball court were matched only by his insatiable will to win.
Tiger Woods has it. Ask his opponents. If they're telling the truth, they'll say his laser-like focus and resolve and his inner drive to succeed scare them even more than his 2-iron.
Call it what you want: heart, determination or that old standby, guts. You know it when you see it.
OK, we know this is going to sound strange. But back on May 20, and in the eight months that have followed, we saw all those qualities in an athlete of a different kind.
We saw them in a horse.
Barbaro, the thoroughbred that everyone wanted to claim as their own, had already shown off his great physical gifts with a jaw-dropping performance in the Kentucky Derby. He won that baby by 61/2 lengths, the largest margin in 60 years, and Robby Albarado, who rode third-place finisher Steppenwolfer that day, said, "Barbaro, man, he's an amazing horse."
Two weeks after showing all that talent in the Derby, Barbaro went to the Preakness in Baltimore. He never got a chance to show his physical greatness that day, but he did show all the intangibles that separated him from those who had been merely blessed with exceptional physical ability.
Close your eyes, and you can still see it all, every harrowing second. The traffic jam of 1,200-pound animals early in the race. The entanglement or misstep or whatever it was. The breakdown.
Barbaro's right hind leg was shattered. Instantly, a great athlete had been cut down in his prime. There would be no Preakness championship, no run at the Triple Crown. We knew that immediately, but Barbaro didn't. With his leg dangling like the blade on a broken hockey stick, he tried to keep going, tried to keep running. He tried to chase the prize on three legs until jockey Edgar Prado pulled him up, dismounted, and comforted the stricken animal.
Of course, the textbooks tell us it was instinct that kept Barbaro going that day in Baltimore. But to those of us who love sports and all their ideals, this was an athlete refusing to go down, an athlete showing the heart of a champion.
Yesterday, after eight months of medical ups and downs, eight months of beating odds that were stacked against him from the time his leg snapped, the champion was put to death. He had continued to fight, just like that day in Baltimore, but his prognosis was poor. He was in distress. His quality of life had deteriorated. There was really no other choice.
And just like that, one of the best sports stories in recent memory in these parts - and many others, because Barbaro's appeal stretched far and wide - reached a sad conclusion.
Barbaro's life ended at the place he had called home the last eight months - the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square.
Reporters and television crews from all over the mid-Atlantic had no trouble finding the place for a somber afternoon press conference. Take a left at the get-well cards on the split rain fence on Route 926. "Grow Hoof Grow," read one of them. It was from a Girl Scout troop in Florida. Owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who live just down the road a piece, said that was their favorite.
"Certainly, grief is the price we all pay for love," Gretchen Jackson said.
And make no mistake about it, people loved Barbaro. Folks who had never been to a horse race were crazy about him and were touched by his story. They loved him in Kentucky, where he was born, in Florida and Delaware, where he raced, in Maryland, where he trained, and in the Philadelphia area, where his owners live and where he ultimately was put to rest.
There's no one reason why people loved this horse, though Dean Richardson, the surgeon who valiantly worked on Barbaro for eight months, said, quite succinctly, "He was beautiful." Some loved Barbaro because he was a winner, a champ, and we all love winners and champs. Others loved him because of the way he refused to go down when his leg had shattered.
"He was a great athlete, and people appreciate greatness," Richardson said. "I think they also appreciated the story of his braveness."
As people, as sports fans, we love to root for something.
First we rooted for Barbaro to win.
Then we rooted for him survive.
Sounds kind of funny, doesn't it? All this fuss over a horse.
But Barbaro was some horse, an amazing horse. All that physical greatness, and heart to boot.