IF YOU sent a basket of apples or a big bunch of carrots to Barbaro when they were trying to save the horse's life at the New Bolton Center . . . if you mailed him a poem or a picture drawn in crayon or a pie or a pretzel or a pot of purple pansies . . . NBC has a belated thank-you note for you.

It's a quasi-documentary called "Barbaro: A Nation's Horse," and they planned to run it Sunday, before a playoff hockey game trudged

into double overtime. That moved it back to Saturday at 8. Which serves 'em right, because the network bragged that it had timed the premiere of the show to coincide with what would have been Barbaro's fourth birthday, which is downright maudlin.

If Barbaro had been born on May 8, would they have held the film for a Tuesday at twilight, 3 days after the running of the 2007 Kentucky Derby? Not on your life.

Thoroughbred horses celebrate their birthday on Jan. 1.

That's just the way it is. Whether it's an early foal, born in January, or a late foal, born in May, they all turn 1 on the first day of the next year, then 2, then 3, then 4. You didn't know that? NBC was counting on it.

It has pitched its film to the folks who sent apples or carrots or poetry to the New Bolton

Center, the sad-eyed folks who gathered at Delaware Park on Sunday to cherish the memory of Barbaro.

It's a mint julep of a film, heavy on the sugar syrup, with maybe a thimbleful of sour mash bourbon, sort of like the juleps they'll be selling at Churchill Downs for $12 a pop on Saturday.

The film asks no tough questions, elicits no startling answers.

They set out to make a "feel-good" movie about a terrific horse who swamped last year's Kentucky Derby field and then shattered his right hind leg like shrapnel in the early moments of the Preakness.

They don't go Zapruder on us and slow the first 100 yards of the Preakness to a frame-by-frame flutter to try to explain what caused Barbaro's right hind leg to shatter like shrapnel.

They do show us Barbaro's

early grass races, including the call of one track announcer calling him "bar-BARE-oh" and not "BAR-burr-oh."

He wasn't yet famous on Derby day and the bettors sent him off at 6-1 because he had started out on the grass, and because he hadn't raced in 5 weeks and gamblers are leery of the unorthodox.

And then he won the Derby by 6 1/2 lengths, biggest margin in 60 years. Shazam, we had a handsome, swift and determined horse capable of winning the

Triple Crown. We had a trainer, Michael Matz, who had rescued three kids from the wreckage of a burning airliner, who had carried the American flag in the closing ceremonies of an Olympics. We had owners, Gretchen and Roy Jackson, who were wealthy, but not ostentatious, even if they did name the colt

after a foxhound in a lithograph they owned.

Two weeks later, Barbaro's right hind leg shattered and America sobbed. People in faraway places with strange-sounding names sobbed, too. Which explains all the carrots and apples that arrived at the New Bolton Center, and why people who only knew horses named Pegasus or Black Beauty or Seabiscuit followed the medical updates on the national news and mourned when they had to put Barbaro to sleep 8 months later.

Why this torrent of emotion for a horse? Maybe it was because we haven't seen a Triple Crown winner since 1978? Or maybe it was because we were stuck in an ugly war in Iraq? Maybe because we were sick of the violence in big-city streets and in an Amish schoolhouse? Or weary of crooked politicians or high taxes or shoddy schools? Maybe we were looking for an unblemished hero, even if he had four legs and one of them had shattered like shrapnel?

The cynics, the haters, grumbled that most racehorses who break a leg are euthanized right there, on the track, with a lethal injection, behind a screen. Some wondered whether the Jacksons were thinking of the millions to be made in the breeding shed if they could keep Barbaro alive.

The film squelches that nasty stuff. You come away convinced that the Jacksons never considered euthanizing Barbaro that day, that they loved the colt and were willing to spend the money to try to help him survive, as long as his quality of life wasn't compromised. And they grieved when Barbaro was put down on Jan. 29, suffering from a nasty, incurable condition called laminitis.

"Grief," Gretchen Jackson says in a poignant moment, "is the price you pay for love."

It brought back contrasting memories of the aftermath of the Ruffian-Foolish Pleasure match race. Ruffian, the lightning-swift filly, broke down in the early moments of the race. A pack of grim journalists approached LeRoy Jolley, the taciturn trainer of Foolish Pleasure.

He could read the sadness in their faces, sense the gloom in their questions. "You don't play this game in short pants," Jolley said grumpily.

Ruffian couldn't cope with the cast on her mended leg when she came out of surgery. Smashed it against the stall walls until it shattered. Was put down the next day. Barbaro dealt with the surgeries and the casts and the early stages of laminitis until every step was painful. And then they put him down.

HBO is working on a Barbaro documentary to be shown before the Belmont, 5 weeks after the Derby. Maybe they'll ask tougher questions, including the one about spacing the Triple Crown races further apart?

Maybe they'll ask about safer, synthetic surfaces? About banning medications that mask pain?

Maybe, but don't bet on it. *

Send e-mail to stanrhoch@verizon.net.