Church of Barbaro: Rallying Behind a Horse's Death

Pictures have been posted of the four animals, along with a price tag for each. "Basically," Brown says, "they need $3,100, which includes transport."

From PayPal accounts, the money pours in, from out there. Housewives and businessmen, people who have money to spare and people who don't. Someone gives $50. Someone gives $25. In an hour and 27 minutes, they've already raised $425. "Every rescue I've followed," he says, "they've raised the money."

Brown gallops horses in the morning and teaches Internet marketing at the University of Delaware in the afternoon, making him uniquely qualified to play Wizard of Oz, expertly pulling strings to maximize his chances at creating an online following.

For years, all his marketing ideas were theories. To test them in the real world, he asked his friend and boss, Fair Hill trainer Tim Woolley, if he could start a blog. Woolley said sure. The site got six hits a day.

Then Barbaro won the Kentucky Derby.

Brown offered updates as his friend Matz got the horse ready for the Triple Crown shot. The site got maybe 120 hits a day.

Then Barbaro broke down in the Preakness.

Soon, he was in an ambulance, pulling into the back of the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, probably the best animal hospital in the world. The doctors knew what to do with a sick animal. The pilgrims out front? That was a different story.

People stopped on Street Road outside New Bolton's gate. Fans rushed to hang banners of support from overpasses. Those not close enough to get to the hospital surfed the Web for information. A community was trying to form, a heat-seeking missile searching for a flame.

Sitting down at a friend's house for dinner, Brown had no idea he was the flame. He'd decided to stop the Barbaro blog. As supper was cooking, he checked the web traffic. Watching the numbers, he saw people were frantically clicking for updates.

He made some calls. When Barbaro came out of surgery, Brown typed up a quick update. Within an hour, there were more than 3,000 hits and the server crashed.

The insider updates -- from doctor to owners to Brown to fans within minutes — were the lifeblood of the site, and when the horse died, Brown expected traffic and comments to peter out. For a few weeks they did, the message board dropping from 1,400 posts a day to 1,000, then 800, then 600.

Then he awoke one morning to find a phenomenon he still cannot explain: The numbers were rising.

By March 6, the posts were back to more than 1,000 a day, raising more money, making more YouTube tribute videos, suffering the pains of every fledgling community, dividing into factions, fighting battles, making laws, taking sides, marching out to colonize, an entire universe playing out inside Brown's laptop. He points to the rising numbers. Eleven months and three servers in, his virtual world is humming along.

He shakes his head. "This community is growing," he says.

The Conversion

Three months after Barbaro died, Alie Berstler leans up against a windowsill and cries. It still doesn't take much.

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