Grief and anxiety

Barbaro. Fully a generation ago there was another great horse. “Ruffian” was his name and while a dramatic and plucky nag he was hardly in the class of “Barbaro.” But what I remember most about Ruffian was all the grief he caused me.

Like Barbaro, Ruffian’s end was nasty and sad; another case of a wonderful creature suffering a broken leg in full flight at the height of a great race. It happened fast and within hours Ruffian had to be euthanized. The outpouring of sympathy -- national in its scope and torrid in its depths ­-- astounded me. And then, I over-swung.

Channel 5 at the time had a dandy weekly half-hour sports program called ‘‘Five on Sports,’’ produced by the estimable Dick Amaral, and as my contribution that week I composed a little essay on Ruffian. But rather than just offer another of the standard eulogies that were flooding the media at the moment, Mr. Smarty Pants chose to deliver a thunderous declamation of the shallowness and misguided priorities that inspired so much grief to be “wasted” on a “mere animal.” The premise of the argument -- holding that many who were devastated by Ruffian’s tragedy were doubtless indifferent to the suffering of humanity -- probably had some merit, while difficult to prove. But the tone and tenor of my little tirade were indefensible. It was a sledgehammer of a shot to a raw nerve. The Great Unwashed were in no mood for it.

Nothing I did in the entire decade of the ’70s provoked more reaction, almost all of it bitterly negative. The phones came off the hook. The cards and letters kept coming for days and many of them were of the one-line and unsigned sort, if you know what I mean. People just didn’t want to hear it.

Now, about a quarter-century later, we have the heart-breaking demise of Barbaro who trampled the odds and lit up the skies at the Kentucky Derby then snapped his right hind hoof like a twig a few strides out of the gate at the Preakness. His struggle to survive over the succeeding eight months captivated the nation. Maybe it was goofy, maybe sweet. But during the holiday season Barbaro received tens of thousands of Christmas cards. Only a month ago it looked like he might be home free.

But then everything about Barbaro’s story was too good to be true. If all the great racing stallions are handsome characters this fella had that radiant bearing and aura of near humanity that you sense in an animal only once every blue moon or so. His co-owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, were right out of central casting; good and simple people still looking for their first big score after 30 years of horse rearing. In Barbaro, they seemed to have finally struck gold. He came out of nowhere, a pure Godsend, their first and only great horse, their ticket to the wondrous heights of thoroughbred racing, their passport to fame and fortune. Everything about Barbaro’s story was too good to be true. It was a bigger and better tearjerker than “Seabiscuit.”

Only in the end, the gallant colt couldn’t beat the odds that decree that even in an age of medical miracles a simple leg fracture is ultimately a death sentence for a horse, no matter how noble. The vets certainly gave it their best shot. Some of the work they did has been described as ‘‘historic.’’ While hardly among the circuit’s financial heavyweights, the Jacksons spared not a penny trying to save him. Do they have a dime left in profit from the Barbaro saga? Probably, not! In the end, it was ‘on the grounds of humanity’ that the Jacksons made the call to end Barbaro’s life. They simply could not bear to see him suffer anymore. His death returns them to obscurity, from whence they came.

A quarter-century or so after Ruffian I am still not sure I understand how a horse can inspire so much genuine affection and deep caring and, in the end, sheer grief in the harshly driven, me-first, decidedly callous culture of contemporary America. Nor do I understand whether it makes that much sense at some aloof and academic level of metaphysics.

But a lot older and a bit wiser, I do understand this much. It is not such a bad thing.

NHL in tailspin

Moving from the sublime to the relatively ridiculous we have some acute concerns to share about the state of hockey that were starkly dramatized at last week’s NHL All-Star break. Reference, obviously, is to professional hockey as it is waged in the National Hockey League. One has no fears for the greater game at large, which has the deepest international roots of any of our so-called “major” sports. Hockey, a brilliant game that raises matchless sporting passions when played well, has a glorious past and a better future. But will the NHL as it is now constituted forever be its foremost professional venue?

Sometimes I think they should melt down this league and start over. They can begin by purging 14 teams including every franchise in the Sunbelt and the old Confederacy. Every dumb change in regulations that they’ve made in this era has diminished the product so they should roll back the rulebook to its 1970 edition. They now use four on-ice officials, but only need two. Fire the other two. They have an inept little marketing man who calls himself ‘‘the Commissioner.’’ He comes from basketball and needs to go back to where he came from.

What we simply need is a 16-team league centered in Canada and the old industrial U.S. towns of the northeast and midwest that is run by hockey men and presided over by a commissioner who knows the difference between the red line and the blue line and is not ashamed to admit that hockey is a contact sport with on-ice officials who are not afraid to let the players play. That’s all. Is it asking too much?

In the meantime, we suffer through such humiliations as last week’s abysmal all-star production. All such sporting festivals are supposed to “celebrate” their game and highlight its virtues and not a one of them has any value anymore. But the NHL’s version is far and away the worst. It’s almost a parody of the game, something “Saturday Night Live” might conjure as an object of scorn. The final score in the central event, the big ‘‘showdown’’ between the all-stars of the East and West, was 12-9. Don’t ask me which team got 12. It was a joke. It had all the passion of an Easter Egg hunt, all the artistry of batting practice.

Why would a game make fun of itself? That, is the question. Only little Gary Bettman, who calls himself “the Commissioner,” has the answer.

But here’s the rub and it’s painful. The Great Unwashed are wise to what is happening and they reject it. On the obscure and largely unreachable cable outlet that the NHL has for a television flagship the ratings for the Big Game were appalling.

Only 474,000 sets in the entire country were tuned in. Can you appreciate how bad that is? It’s about what a local TV newscast would consider acceptable. It’s a viewership the Big Bad Bruins commanded from Suffolk County alone for a routine regular season tilt in the good old days. Under-scoring the point is the fact that the many programs in the same time-slot that out-drew the NHL’s gala event included a reprise of a 40-year-old ‘‘Andy Griffith Show’’ on TV Land and ‘‘The Ace of Cakes’’ on the Food Network. It’s shameful.

One agrees that TV ratings are ultimately the measure of nothing of value. And yet the NHL ignores these figures at its peril. They don’t care anymore, boys. They simply don’t care.