Lessons Learned From Barbaro

Dr. Dean Richardson, chief surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania New Bolton Center for Large Animals, lets Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro graze, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
AP Photo
Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro's greatest impact might be the future well-being of thoroughbreds.

"There have been an awful lot of positives," co-owner Roy Jackson said at a news conference Monday, just hours after Barbaro was euthanized after a series of ailments, including laminitis in three feet.

"Veterinary medicine has learned a great deal, the general public has been educated and a host of issues have been addressed. Our hope is that some of these issues won't die."

Barbaro's fight for survival was extraordinary in several ways: The three bones he shattered in his right rear leg at the Preakness more than eight months ago had completely healed; state-of-the-art technology allowed him to endure a grueling series of surgeries and pool recoveries; he rested comfortably in body slings; and he handled constant cast changes.

"Even though this is a very sad ending, I think overall it's been a positive experience," Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, said. "It's taught people what can be done, and there will probably be horses in the future who will live based on what happened with Barbaro."

Although horses with similar injuries have recovered in the past, none was as prominent as Barbaro, who won all six of his races before the horrifying 2006 Preakness breakdown.

The colt sustained a broken cannon bone above the ankle, a broken sesamoid bone behind the ankle and a broken long pastern bone below the ankle. The fetlock joint — the ankle — was dislocated. Richardson said the pastern bone was shattered in "20-plus pieces."

Barbaro pulled through the complicated five-hour surgery during which Richardson inserted a titanium plate and 27 screws into the broken bones. It was the first of nearly two dozen surgeries and other procedures, including cast changes under anesthesia.

In many cases, horses with such severe injuries would be euthanized on the spot. But Jackson and his wife Gretchen chose to spare no expense and sent their colt directly from Baltimore to the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center about two hours away. That's where Dr. Dean Richardson tried to save Barbaro.

It almost happened.

Had it not been for laminitis — the dreaded hoof disease caused by uneven weight distribution in the limbs — he likely would have pulled through.

"This was a very near thing," Arthur said. "If it hadn't been for the last cascade of complications, I think this could have been successful. The key thing is the fracture healed. It was laminitis to the left hind that started the sequence of events that led to his demise."

Richardson choked back tears Monday when he described his final minutes with Barbaro.

"Barbaro had many, many good days," he said.

Richardson emphasized he'd learned a great deal and would be better equipped to handle a horse with the same injury.

"I honestly believe I would have a better chance to save his life, because I would probably not make the same mistakes," Richardson said. "I'm sure I made mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes, or know of things you could have done better."

Richardson also learned how to better manage a horse's pain throughout the difficult medical procedures, reported The Early Show's veterinary correspondent Dr. Debbye Turner.

In a way, Barbaro has championed other causes. Celeste Kunz, a vet with the American Association of Equine Practitioners, said the colt's plight could bring more funding for laminitis research. The Jacksons have been outspoken in their support to stop the slaughter of horses.

Several vets said they believe other owners now might consider trying to save an injured horse.

"People who have a horse injured may now stop and say there might be a treatment out there," said Larry Bramlage, a vet at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky. "Never before has there been a horse of such prominence treated like this. Barbaro will make people aware they should investigate their options."

But, cost is still an issue. The Jacksons spent tens of thousands of dollars.

"I think the Jacksons can certainly be comfortable and confident they did absolutely everything they could to save this horse," Mike Curry, daily news editor of the Thoroughbred Times, told The Early Show.

Curry dismissed the idea that the Jacksons spared no cost to save Barbaro because of the horse's potential value for breeding. Curry said the insurance policy on Barbaro was probably higher than his stud value since the horse suffered devastating leg injuries.

"I don't think you go and pick grass twice a day for a horse when it's about the money," Curry said. "This was a horse that they really cared for and was near and dear to their heart."