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."
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.
Three months after Barbaro died, Alie Berstler leans up against a windowsill and cries. It still doesn't take much.
She owns Kennett Florist, which was the conduit between the fans and the horse during his long and mercurial hospital stay. Phone calls to the shop in the purple and pink Victorian house in scenic downtown Kennett were the FOBs first forays out of Brown's virtual world and into the real one. Berstler began as an observer of Barbaro-mania. Eventually, she would become messenger, translator, therapist and, to many, a friend. She understands why Brown's hits are climbing.
When Barbaro first arrived at New Bolton, just a few miles away from her store, the phone began ringing. Some orders took 20 minutes to complete; the callers were so distraught they couldn't get the words out for the card.
In the months that followed, she got her wholesaler to deliver carrots and apples, keeping gigantic bags in stock. Soon, she found that Barbaro liked tender baby green tops, so the shop carried those. Understanding people's need to do something, anything, she waived her minimum order requirement. Some deliveries, she lost money, but she was compensated in other ways. She still cherishes a letter from a nun, Sister Catherine, who thanked her for allowing those of modest means to contribute.
Somewhere along the way, she became one of them. She helped gather a collection for Richardson's birthday. Checks and cash arrived at the flower shop, until enough had been raised for Berstler to purchase a gigantic gift basket with rounds of golf, theater tickets, food, you name it. "One girl spent a whole day just driving," she says, "picking up everything."
She arranged for fans to pay for pizza deliveries for the hospital staff. She helped organize the fans paying for the Christmas party at New Bolton. There were homemade cupcakes, cookies and snack food in the ICU for the doctors and nurses.
"FOBs have a theory: Happy caregivers mean happy horses," Berstler says.
She designed a tree for New Bolton, each ornament bearing the name of an FOB. The tree topper? A Barbaro Beanie Baby. The horse, so he wouldn't feel left out, got a tree made of apples. And a specially made blanket, paid for by fans and delivered by Berstler. They were frantic it wouldn't arrive by Christmas, even though someone smartly pointed out that, well, you know, Barbaro doesn't know it's Christmas.
Indeed, the crates of mail and packages that arrived at Barbaro's stall were both slightly absurd and uplifting. Some came from Kennett Florist. Other things came directly to New Bolton. Someone sent holy water from Rome. The owners rubbed it on their horse, just in case. St. Francis medals and statues. An American flag from soldiers in Iraq. Freshly cut grass. Letters from kids. Literally vanloads of carrots. The staff members received long, heartfelt mail thanking them for their work.
"You got some where you were like, 'OK, put that in the wacky pile,'" nurse Jamie DeFazio says.
When Barbaro died, Berstler had to call people with outstanding orders to tell them their beloved horse was gone. The ones who heard it on television dialed up the flower shop, asking for Berstler, praying it wasn't true. She stayed in a back room, distraught, letting her staff handle the rest of the calls. When the day was finally over, she felt empty. A day before, she'd been part of a vibrant community. Now? She was alone.
"Now we had no reason to be together," she says. "It was like something hit me. It wasn't that I was missing Barbaro. I was missing the family and the friends that I'd made. Apparently, I wasn't the only one, because the phone started ringing."
Gretchen Jackson, Barbaro's owner, called from vacation. Corinne Sweeney, head of New Bolton, did, too. Fans began connecting with Berstler on the phone and with each other at the message board.
Some of the fans left Barbaro behind, especially the children. "When you're 6 years old," says Lisa Freimuth, a first-grade teacher whose students wrote cards, "you move on." The phone rings less. Just last week, for the first time since Barbaro was injured, Berstler didn't order carrots and apples from her wholesaler.
"It's slowed down a lot," she says. "I have even thrown out a few apples in the last weeks."
Others cannot move on. Will not. Their extremism makes others more extreme, each person a little more fanatical than the last. The community is becoming tighter and more active. Fans sent Easter baskets to the folks who worked on Barbaro. A few days ago, the shop delivered cupcakes. As Berstler is talking, the day's mail arrives. There's a tube.
Her assistant, Rachel Rockoff, looks at the label. "Artwork from a Fan of Barbaro," she says.
Preaching the Gospel
A tiny woman with graying blond hair and green corduroy pants rides on the screeching, rumbling Brooklyn-bound B train. Her name is Martita Goshen and she's a world-renown ballet dancer. Now, she's a FOB.
Since the horse died, she's taken the mission a step further, slipping out from behind the computer screen, doing more than donating money or sending carrots and flowers. She's gone out to spread the word.
As the subway car crosses the river, passengers seem to be listening to what Goshen is saying, trying to pretend like they're not. She's attempting to explain how a horse changed her life. The more she talks, the more out there it sounds, which, being self-aware, she realizes. Maybe she's a prophet. Maybe she's loony. Maybe she's both.
"Barbaro was in many dimensions," she says. "He looked at the whole picture. That's why he had that stumble at the Derby. He was ahead of the moment. The Zen of that. That's dancing. For the rest of my life, I'll be working to move with that innocence."
Many years ago on a voyage off the coast of San Diego, she came face to face with the eye of a whale. She saw all of humanity in that eye, the rise and fall of civilizations, love, hate, power, glory, ugliness, beauty, lies, truth. This realization has taken her all over the planet, trying to help save the creatures she holds dear by raising environmental awareness.
Watching the Kentucky Derby, she saw something in Barbaro's eye she'd seen in that whale. When the horse was injured a few weeks later, she put her career on hold. She mostly stopped traveling, except to New Bolton Center to dance for the staff. They didn't know what to make of the stranger before them, a dancer accustomed to stages, moving in a hospital lobby to the sounds of a jambox. She mastered the Internet to commune with new friends. She baked cookies for the doctors and nurses, using her grandmother's recipe. When her dancers — she's a choreographer — would ask what they were for, she'd reply, "For Dr. Richardson and Barbaro."
The first time, one asked, "Who's Barbaro?"
"He's a great messenger," she said. "He's the greatest dancer I've seen since Baryshnikov or Nureyev."
Goshen became friends with Gretchen and Roy Jackson, Barbaro's owners, and, on the next-to-last day of the horse's life, she was invited in to meet the great Barbaro. She put on sterile booties and a gown, walking slowly through the peach-colored halls of the ICU, which looks like a human hospital except for the stalls and a dry erase board with messages like, "Need goat plasma."
"I was just as terrified when I met Barbaro as when I met the Dalai Lama," she says.
She leaned in, looking Barbaro in the eye. She refused to look at his legs. Whispering, she said, "Dearest Barbaro, I imagine you might want to be getting out of this stall."
A day later, he was dead. Inconsolable, she wrote a letter, part to the Jacksons, part to the horse. "I begin the long journey to complete the work you began here on earth," she wrote. "With shattered heart but flaming red soul I send you all my love and hope in the light in the light in the light."
The train comes out of the tunnel, into the station. King's Highway, the sign reads. She climbs the stairs of a Brooklyn school where kids from all over the world first learn about America. In the classroom she enters, the teachers stand around and watch. Goshen gets down with the children.
There is a clear divide. On one side, the adults, trying to align the kids into neat rows, one shaking her head when Goshen begins dancing, another looking for someone to make eye contact with, like she desperately wants you to know that she knows that this is crazy. On the other side are the children and Goshen. They are in the moment, free of judgment and cynicism.
"What's bigger than us?" Goshen asks.
The call and response begins, her first, then the students.
She urges them to feel part of something larger. They dance like dolphins, calling arms flippers. The kids love it. "That was fun!" "Today was worth it!" "This is the greatest fun I've ever had."
In one room, first-graders crowd around. Goshen wants them to run with the grace of horses. "Remember Barbaro?" she says. "My best friend up in heaven?"
"Lets do this for Barbaro!"
Finally, the dancing is over. The kids are spent. Goshen is, too. Even some of the teachers are swept into this world of whimsy and innocence, moving slowly at first, running across the room at the end.
With the first-graders, there is one more thing to do. Goshen turns off the lights. "Now it's time to go inside," she says.
The class calms down.
"Did you have a bumpy day?" she asks. "Did you have a bumpy night? Something didn't work out? Someone hurt your feelings?
"Take a deep breath."
The kids exhale.
"It's sort of like before a big race," she says. "Barbaro knows his time is coming when he can show the world what a wonderful, wonderful runner he is and how much he loves life. So today, boys and girls, go into your heart and whisper to your heart. Whisper right now what you most need."
The room is dark. It is quiet. For the first time all day, the students are still.
The moment passes. Goshen turns the lights back on, reaches into her bag and pulls out a Beanie Baby made in Barbaro's image.
"I brought something that reminds me of Barbaro," she says, her voice soft and soothing. "Great Barbaro. I love to pass him around. He's wearing that No. 8. Now I'd like you to pass him around like you'd pass something special." She hands it to the right. The teacher. "It's not just about a stuffed animal," Goshen says. "It's about what you find special."
They pass it around. The teacher looks at his face. A few pet him. The room is quiet. One kid checks under his tiny, stuffed ears.
"That's how you can pass feelings back and forth in this very difficult world," Goshen says.
"It's soft," a student says.
Goshen smiles. They are all children now.
If you thought passing around a stuffed horse was as out there as it gets, please refer to the first rule of FOBs: Don't ever assume you've reached the edge. Meet Sharon Crumb, who is wearing her "Believe in Barbaro, Believe in Miracles" T-shirt for inspiration. She needs it.
It was her idea to throw a small party for the friends she's made on Brown's site at Delaware Park for Barbaro's birthday. Now there are 550 guests and counting, from all over the world, one all the way from South Africa. They're less Fans of Barbaro now than Fans of Each Other. What began as a virtual community, then ventured into the real world, then took its message to the classrooms of Brooklyn, is now ready to complete the transition from cyberspace to terra firma. They're ready for reality. This is big. Crumb can't sit down.
"I'm too nervous," she says. "I didn't expect this."
Crumb's apprehension is understandable. The FOBs are walking dangerous ground, with problems both existential and specific. What happens when a virtual community becomes real? Can it still exist? Will there be a social reordering based upon outward appearance? Will the well-dressed and good-looking and wealthy suddenly be more important when they all return to the Internet on Monday? How are they gonna get enough birthday cake? Where are they gonna sit? Do they go with their real or screen names on the tags? Bea Gobee, Crumb's friend and fellow FOB, has come over to help. Whatever the risks or logistical headaches, both agree that it's time.
"Now we're finally gonna get to meet," Gobee says. "Now it's one great big group hug that we needed to do three months ago."
"Since his injury," Crumb says, "we've all been crying in front of our computer."
"If Barbaro had not made it [as long as he did]," Gobee says, "we wouldn't be here as a group."
Crumb nods. "We wouldn't be fighting for horses," she says. "We're forever. We gonna constantly be working to improve the lives of horses in the name of Barbaro. We all feel like we owe him something. I know I do."
She's standing in a decaying, dimly lit house in Phillipsburg, N.J. The table in front of her is covered in Barbaro items for a charity auction, the upstairs toilet broken, the kitchen a mess. But don't judge her. You don't know what the past six years have been like. In 2001, her world fell apart. Her husband, who cooked pizzas at an Atlantic City landmark for 22 years, was stabbed to death out on Iowa Avenue with a butcher's knife. She lost her Henry, her best friend, her everything. She had to sell her home and start her life over. It was hard to believe in much of anything. Until Barbaro. The thing that drew her in was the horse's shift from cocky to scared in the moment of his injury. She can relate to that. Sometimes, people lose their faith in the world, start to believe that the sun might not come up again. When Barbaro fought, she figured she could fight, too. She's got a fiancé, a good man named Frank, and they're saving for a down payment on a new home. She's got a life. She's got a community. All because of a horse.
"The courage of him gave me courage," Crumb says. "I could relate. Is that strange? I don't know anymore."
She spent hours on Brown's site, meeting other people like herself, people who needed something to believe in, people who didn't have anything better to do, wackos, upstanding citizens, the gamut of humanity. It was all she did. It was all a lot of people did. "I know people whose marriages disintegrated because the husband couldn't understand or the wife couldn't understand," she says. "I know of three within my little circle."
Crumb vanishes for a second, returning with an blue old-school Sony Discman. A fan has written a song about Barbaro, and they're going to debut it at the birthday party. Crumb listens to this song 20 times a day, over and over, weeping every time, trying to get herself strong enough to hear it in public. She wants Gobee to hear it for the first time. She helps slip the headphones on, works the buttons until the music begins.
Say your prayers Bobby's gone away Somebody's been grieving His mom is so in pain
Who could have known Bobby was so strong And Dr. R's not the same since He can't believe that you're really gone
Barbaro You are gone All along … God had, God had another plan for you
Gobee listens, struggling. When it's over, she cannot speak. She opens her mouth but no words come out. "Mmm-hmm," she says.
"Did it get you?" Crumb asks.
"Uh-huh," Gobee says.
Tears form behind her glasses. Gobee quickly stands up and heads toward the kitchen to compose herself. Crumb stands to meet her. They hug.
"I need a copy of this," Gobee says finally.
"This is it," Crumb tells her. "This is the real deal."
Their zeal is both ridiculous and endearing. The truth is, the more time you spend around them, the less of the former and the more of the latter you feel, which could be because their goodness is contagious or because, after a steady diet of increasing wackiness, everything seems reasonable. But that still doesn't explain it. What makes so many people rearrange their entire lives for a horse they've never met? Why this horse? Why now?
"It's interesting to try and figure out," says Roy Jackson. "I still can't answer the question: why?"
Sitting just down the hall from Barbaro's old stall at Fair Hill, veterinarian Kathy Anderson considers it. She knew Barbaro all his life and, like the others who see him as an animal who died and not the cornerstone of a community's creation story, she thinks about this a lot. Finally, she settles upon an answer.
"He is a different thing to every different person," she says. "To the person suffering from cancer, he's hope. To the person who lost their cat when they were 12 and never got over it, he's a way to have him back. To the athlete, he's a hero. To the soldiers who sent their flag from Iraq, he's a fellow soldier. He's a different thing to everybody.
"To New Bolton, he was a patient. For me, he was a wonderful athlete. He was a patient. But most important, he was a horse. I love horses, and he was one of the best. That's why nobody will ever be able to put him in a sentence. For every person, there's a different sentence.
"He created friendships and bonds between people who would never, ever have met. They're coming here to meet and it's the first time they'll ever lay eyes on each other."
She thinks about the web of people wound tight long after the horse who brought them together came undone.
"They will remain friends for a long time."
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.