Serious symptom

The problem for horse racing goes beyond the euthanizing of Barbaro, the popular, dominant Kentucky Derby champion, on Monday.

The greatest obstacle standing between horse racing and a return to true national prominence is its inability to develop and promote long-standing fan sensations because the sport is too dangerous and the animals both too valuable and too fragile.

There is no situation in sports that compares. Every attention-capturing horse is a shooting star, one who immediately after achieving initial greatness probably is a more valuable and safer investment on a stud farm than on a track continuing to pursue further greatness in races.

In spring 2004, Smarty Jones captured America's attention with his humble, underdog story and with victories in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. He attracted massive media coverage, a record crowd at the Belmont Stakes and huge television ratings.

Then he lost. And never raced again.

That's what would have happened to Barbaro whether he had broken down violently at the Preakness Stakes last spring or not. By now he would have been retired no matter his potential appeal, no matter the long-term benefits to horse racing.

His death Monday serves as a chilling reminder to horse owners not to risk it with these animals, with these commodities.

And that is how and why this sport continues to struggle to regain its old status, desperately trying to reestablish a connection with the American fan base.

Superstars can accomplish that, and Barbaro was one. His 6½-length victory in the Kentucky Derby was the largest since 1946, the kind of attention-grabbing result that drew fans in. And like Smarty Jones a few years before him, Barbaro had horse enthusiasts dreaming of the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.

But once he produced that historic victory in Louisville, his racing days quickly became numbered. Barbaro probably would have been taken off the track by now, healthy legs or not. He would have tried for the Triple Crown, then maybe run August's Travers Stakes in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., or the fall Breeders' Cup. Maybe.

Most likely he would have been retired immediately.

No one is shedding a tear for the financial hit that Barbaro's owners, Gretchen and Roy Jackson, took on Monday. And best anyone can tell, the Jacksons are devastated over the loss of a horse they truly loved, not anything else.

But the money is real. Barbaro earned $2.3 million in prize money, and if eight months of surgeries, rehab and attention had allowed him to stay on his feet and breed, he would have earned tens of millions more.

Even if you believe the Jacksons' sole concern was the health and well-being of their horse, that they didn't prolong his suffering because of the payout, what about the next owner?

The days of Seabiscuit touring America, bringing the excitement to the people, participating in challenge races, are gone. A champion horse's offspring is too valuable and the sport too unpredictable and dangerous to risk it.

Smarty Jones was the most popular horse in decades, the kind of animal that could have drawn massive crowds to any track in America. But after being upset at the Belmont and losing the Triple Crown, he was done.

Smarty's owners – and, one would think, the horse himself – reaped the benefits of his initial success. But the fans and the sport lost out. What horse racing needed to explode in popularity was Smarty Jones racing to this day. Some fans and media complained that his owners cared only about themselves and not the sport.

There just is nothing like this in sports. There is no other circumstance where once an athlete shows greatness it is safer and more profitable to stop competing. It is impossible to fathom a LeBron James, Sidney Crosby, Ryan Howard or Vince Young just walking away from potential championships.

But that's horse racing today. They can't get the purses high enough to override the risk/reward factor of what happened to Barbaro, whose fate only reaffirms these decisions made by many owners and makes future similar ones easier.

The proper business move for a horse owner is to pull the animal out of competition, the short-term thrill of the fans and the long-term health of the sport be damned.

So Barbaro is gone and those that loved him mourn. But for the sport as a whole, this is a sobering reminder that its greatest problems – skittish, profit-protecting owners – just had their bottom-line beliefs reinforced.