There's a new horse in Barbaro's stall. He arrived a day ago, and a plaid Baker blanket deflects the last jabs of winter. Spring is here, and in the rolling hills of Maryland where Barbaro grew up, the grass has turned back to brilliant green and the mid-April sky has changed from the color of battleships to baby-boy blue. The Kentucky Derby is around the corner.
Just down the road from the Fair Hill Training Center, at Prizzio's grocery and deli, horsemen gather for bowls of steaming crab soup. Last week, the owners took down the collage of press clippings. They know Michael Matz, the trainer, is coming back from Florida soon, and they want him to eat lunch without staring at the biggest loss of his racing life. They want to help him move on. Indeed, since the Jan. 29 death of Barbaro, all of the horse's connections, the men and women who saw him every day, are beginning to move on. It's time.
"It's not a parable," says Dr. Dean Richardson, who led the eight-month fight to save Barbaro. "It's a real story to me."
The fans aren't there yet. The obsession that made them easy targets of bloggers and lampooners has, improbably, grown. They formed a circle, and even with the horse no longer in the middle, the circle remains. His death only binds this community tighter. They've become apostles in the church of Barbaro.
So far, they've raised more than $250,000 and saved more than 580 horses from slaughter. They've turned their sights on federal horse slaughter laws, burning up the phone lines. Their fervor can be mistaken for the handiwork of professional political operatives. One congressional aide, after yet another call, finally asked: Who is funding you? Who is organizing you? Who are you people?
"We're just Fans of Barbaro," the caller answered.
Well, where do you even start?
The mother ship seems as good a place as any.
Alex Brown, wearing a yellow Fair Hill sweatshirt with holes in it, sits in front of his Toshiba laptop computer. He was drawn into this by happenstance, really. Painfully thin, he's a little too tall to be a jockey. There are scraps of paper and empty coffee cups and dead-soldier wine bottles and books and food wrappers piled high around him.
He lives here, set back from a quiet street, his house decorated in late bachelor, mostly with chess sets and photos of Barbaro.
In the virtual world where he spends five hours a day, he's God. He created this universe. He banishes the disruptive. He offers redemption to the recalcitrant. He's learned he cannot get involved in arguments because his opinion is law. When he does speak, his words manifest themselves in the actions of a fan base desperate for direction. If he mentions a charity, it is supported. If he disses a charity, it is ignored. If he likes a book, it is bought.
Brown logs on to timwoolleyracing.com , which is FOB ground zero. Before he starts monitoring the latest messages, he checks page views. Since he began: 2,469,751, 752, 753, 754, the hits come day and night, 415 in the past hour, 755, 756, 767.
"This is how it works," he says, with a Manchester, England, accent still thick despite decades in the States.
He clicks on a link in the message board. "The four following horses are at a feed lot," he reads.
Turning to explain, he says, "A feed lot is a way station before they go to slaughter."