05/21/2006 11:00PM

Two species feel the pain

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The story is pretty clear. Barbaro's injury could have been worse, but not much, and it still could be as bad as it gets. Only a Pollyanna on a white wine high would dare put the Derby winner out of heart and out of mind for a minute, thinking everything will be okay.

If nothing else, over the next weeks and months, the so-called casual racing fan who cares to pay attention will be treated to equine veterinary medicine at its best and brightest. The procedures used to repair Barbaro's shattered lower leg are nothing less than medical miracles made real, while the recovery process is a nerve-wracking dance that could go wrong in a blink.

"Thank goodness they were near the only place on the East Coast with a [post-op recovery] pool," said Dr. Doug Herthel, the widely respected veterinary surgeon and director of California's Alamo Pintado Equine Hospital. "Without a pool, the recovery would have been a disaster."

To the uninitiated viewer, what is happening to Barbaro comes across as an awful exception to the rule. Horse racing, on the surface, looks like a splashy pageant, full of beautiful beasts and their attendant humans, all serving the greater economic good of the entertainment/gambling economy.

In fact, the entire enterprise sometimes can seem like a long-running field experiment from hell. All of the remarkable surgical procedures applied to Barbaro's injury have been perfected through years of trial, error, and practical application. The plates, rods and screws now holding Barbaro's former right hind ankle together have undergone numerous modifications in size, shape, threadwidth, and even basic metallurgy, while the tranquilizers and anesthetics used before and during the surgery have evolved from harsher, less reliable compounds.

Everything that can be done will be done to preserve Barbaro's life. In the meantime, racing's boosters wring their hands over what Barbaro's very public injury means to the game. Poof, they say, there goes all that hard work courting national networks, corporate sponsors, and Internet fans.

The people who run the game long to be a major-league attraction, with slavering segments on SportsCenter, above-the-fold newspaper coverage, and widespread cultural recognition. Never mind Nascar. Horse racing wants to be golf.

But horse racing wants to do it without coming to terms with the deepest nature of the game, that basically horse racing is bullfighting with less blood and more suspense. The point, fortunately, is not to kill an animal. The point, both artistic and athletic, is to court danger right up to the edge, then lead them safely back to the barn.

If there is any cosmic justice, Barbaro will not become the latest poster child for the game's dark side, a list that includes not only Ruffian, Go for Wand, Timely Writer, Black Hills, Union City, and Prairie Bayou, but also Great Communicator, Roving Boy, Spook Express, Mr. Brooks, Mr. Nickerson, Shaker Knit, What a Song, Up an Octave, Star Over the Bay, Hello, Big Jag, Exogenous, Sweet Diane, High Haven, Ramblin Guy, Spanish Fern, Tucked Away, Premier Property, Three Ring, Matiara, Grand Canyon, Landseer, and Dance Daily - all talented runners from the past 25 years who did not survive damage done while racing, training or, in some cases, just trying to get to the track.

Funfair belongs, as well, as the most recent casualty of the Breeders' Cup, the same Funfair who was stabled last fall with the Graham Motion horses at Maryland's Fair Hill Training Center, just down the road from a young Michael Matz prospect named Barbaro.

Last Saturday, Motion was preparing for his own big day at Pimlico with Better Talk Now in the Dixie Handicap on the grass. He won the race, in a thriller over Artie Schiller, and then settled in to enjoy the Preakness and cheer on his Fair Hill colleague.

"It's a close-knit group at Fair Hill, with an extraordinary camaraderie," Motion said. "And it's been magnified by Barbaro. I've never rooted harder for a horse outside my stable."

When Barbaro went wrong, Motion knew how bad it was, and in that instant he could not help flashing back to last Oct. 29 at Belmont Park, also known as one of the saddest days of his life.

"The strangest thing about it is that you will worry about a horse who's had some issues, maybe a little filling in an ankle or whatever, and nine times out of 10 it will be totally out of the blue, like with Michael's horse," Motion said. "It was that way with me and Funfair in the Breeders' Cup."

As a well-tested 6-year-old British gelding who was 3 for 3 in the United States for Motion, Funfair was among the contenders for the 2005 Breeders' Cup Mile. Barely a quarter of a mile into the race, Funfair's right hind cannon bone shattered. The damage was irreparable. He was ridden by Edgar Prado.

"As trainers, we're all pretty pessimistic," Motion said. "You end up expecting the worst things to happen. But then you're broadsided when they actually do. The day that Funfair broke his leg, I had to go back to the barn before a race later on the card. And I swear to you - it was an extraordinary thought and I had to check myself - but it crossed my mind that I wanted to just drive out of the gate and not come back."

There are a lot of people right now who know the feeling.