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A Setback for Barbaro

Recovering from leg injuries suffered at the Preakness, the Kentucky Derby winner comes down with a painful hoof disease, laminitis, and doctors say his odds for survival are not good.

July 14, 2006|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

Almost eight weeks and untold thousands of dollars after Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was injured at the start of the Preakness Stakes, the colt was once again given a slim chance of surviving Thursday after developing a dreaded hoof complication called laminitis.

Barbaro first had surgery May 21, the day after he had broken down in the Preakness, and until last week was doing well. In recent days, he took a dramatic turn for the worse and developed laminitis, a painful and life-threatening condition, in his uninjured left hind foot.

"It's a longshot. I'm not going to sugar-coat it," said Dean Richardson, chief of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa.

Barbaro will be euthanized if his pain cannot be managed, Richardson said, a situation that could develop any time.

"As long as the horse is not suffering, we're going to continue to try," he said.

"If he starts acting like he doesn't want to stand on the leg, that's it. That will be when we call it quits."

Veterinarians at New Bolton Center, the renowned animal hospital in the horse country south of Philadelphia where Barbaro is being treated, have gone to extraordinary ends at extraordinary expense to try to save the colt.

Richardson, considered one of the top equine surgeons in the world, has called the horse's chances of surviving "a coin toss" from the beginning, noting that many horses with such injuries would have been destroyed on the track.

Richardson estimated that the horse's treatment on the first day after the race alone cost "tens of thousands" of dollars as a team of surgeons operated for more than four hours to insert a metal plate and 27 screws in the horse's right hind leg.

Barbaro has been in intensive care since, with round-the-clock care and two additional operations. If he is to survive, he will not leave the hospital for perhaps six months, all of which probably will push the bill deep into six figures.

Some believe Barbaro is getting the chance to live because he broke down in the public eye, in front of a national television audience and a record crowd of 118,402 at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course that looked on in horror as the horse flailed its badly broken leg in front of the grandstand.

But it is also because he is owned by wealthy longtime horse people, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, and not a syndicate with shallow pockets. Roy Jackson is a Rockefeller heir, and Gretchen Jackson is on the board of overseers for the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school and is closely tied to the school's New Bolton Center where Barbaro is being treated. Not long after Barbaro's injuries, the New Bolton Center started a Barbaro fund, primed by a contribution from an anonymous donor -- not for the horse's care, but to support the hospital, where children arrived with flowers, carrots and apples for Barbaro after his injury.

Though the horse's breeding value if he is ever able to stand at stud has been estimated at $30 million, the Jacksons have insisted that concern for the horse and not its potential value was their primary reason for trying to save it.

"Every single person involved in making this decision cares only for the well-being of the horse," Richardson said.

Bob Baffert, a trainer who has lost horses to racetrack injuries, seemed to recognize the sentiment.

"I don't think they did this to try and save the horse for its stud services," he said. "These animals become like your children. Truth is, with the injury to the back leg like that, the likelihood that Barbaro would ever stand at stud was very slim. They knew that. This was just a beloved animal."

Only two weeks ago, Richardson said, he thought Barbaro would survive.

But problems suddenly developed last week, eventually leading to a diagnosis of laminitis, the same condition that led to the euthanasia of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat at the age of 19 in 1989.

"The most feared complication from the outset was that he would develop laminitis," said Richardson, who called the condition extremely painful and compared it to a horse carrying his 1,200 or more pounds on the tip of a finger after the nail has been pulled off.

Caused by uneven weight distribution as Barbaro favored his other injured leg, laminitis is a condition in which the tissue connecting the hoof to the bone becomes inflamed and the hoof separates from the bone in the foot.

Doctors operated Wednesday to remove a large portion of Barbaro's left hind hoof in hopes it will regrow, a process that could take six months. Only about 20% of the hoof remains attached to the bone, Richardson said.

Because horses are unable to lie down for long periods to heal, Barbaro must bear his weight on two painful legs and only two healthy ones.

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