KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. – His coat gleaming and muscles rippling, Barbaro still has the look of a champion.
One month after the Kentucky Derby winner's life-threatening breakdown in the Preakness Stakes, the colt remains cooped up in the intensive care unit at the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals at New Bolton Center.
But he's making such steady improvement — and he looks splendid, by the way — even surgeon Dean Richardson can't help but smile when discussing the world's most famous equine patient.
"This horse has had a remarkably smooth progression of events, he's just done everything right so far," Richardson said. "He's a lively, bright, happy horse. If you asked me a month ago, I would have gladly accepted where we are today."
In his spacious corner stall, Barbaro walked around with head held high, sporting a new fiberglass cast that protects the catastrophic injuries to his right hind ankle at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on May 20.
Once a visitor stepped inside his cubicle, the bay colt approached with eyes bright, ears up and barely a hitch in his step. He eagerly devoured a handful of sugar cubes, followed by a peppermint for dessert, then shook his head up and down and gave a little whinny as if asking for a second helping.
"When someone walks in the door, he's ready to head out — not because he's bored or frustrated, but because he's full of energy," says Dr. Corinne Sweeney, the hospital's executive director who sees Barbaro nearly every day. "He's been full of energy since he came in here and he remains that way."
Barbaro is working on a new life, and these days he's the master of his domain in the six-stall ICU. Mares have come and gone since his arrival, and Barbaro has flirted with many of them. In the neonatal ICU — elsewhere in the building — Barbaro's former mare-next-door was tending to her premature foal. Over the weekend, a stallion replaced the mare as Barbaro's new neighbor.
The day Jazil won the Belmont Stakes — June 10 — ABC Sports visited Barbaro and put him on television. There was even a TV set placed in the ICU. Would Barbaro watch the Belmont?
At first, he seemed interested: When the call to the post sounded, the 3-year-old colt walked to the front of his stall, ears pricked and head up, Sweeney said. By the time the field turned for home, though, Barbaro had turned away, walked to the back of his stall and relieved himself.
For the most part, Barbaro is a cooperative patient.
"He's very personable, he knows his job," Sweeney said. If someone comes in to groom him or clean his stall, "he kind of moves over as if he's saying, `OK, I don't want to fight you. You're just trying to do your job."'
While Barbaro appears friendly, frisky and a bit feisty — a note on his stall door read: Caution: Bites. He's got a long road to recovery, and the staff at the New Bolton Center knows complications could develop at any time.
Months of healing remain before the cast comes off for good and decisions are made about Barbaro's future, but Richardson was feeling better after fitting the colt with a new hock-to-hoof cast last week. His left hind leg has been fitted with a special shoe and support apparatus to ensure his weight is evenly distributed.
Most encouraging was Richardson's first look at the 18-inch incision he made to piece together three broken bones with a titanium plate and 27 screws.
"I was thrilled to see the incision had healed fairly well," Richardson said. "There's not a lot to see in X-rays after just three weeks, but everything looked fine. We're very encouraged."
The only visible blemish on Barbaro is the blistered skin on his left side, caused by the sling used for his initial surgery, and then again when the cast was changed. As with humans, wearing a cast is not the most comfortable thing in the world.
"Horses aren't usually capable of taking a pen or a coat hanger and guiding it down there and scratching it," Richardson said. "All he can do is stomp his foot."
The day after the Preakness, Richardson and a team of doctors performed perhaps the most complex surgery of the surgeon's career — a five-hour plus procedure. Afterward, Richardson told a hospital conference hall full of reporters that Barbaro's chance of survival was a "coin toss." It could have been a lot worse.
Ten days later, he revised the figure to 51 percent, calling Barbaro an elite athlete and a model patient who knows how to take care of himself.
Today, Richardson is guardedly optimistic. He says the odds are "going up," and adds: "Until he actually walks out of the hospital with no cast on, the radiographs look normal and he's bearing full weight, it won't even jump to 75 percent.
"If and when that happens, it will probably creep up ... and when I decide it's time to leave the hospital, maybe I'll finally admit that something worked," he said.
The next major concern is the healing process: Will the bones heal before the hardware begins to loosen?
"He's a large active horse and the metal really isn't meant to bear the weight for a very long period of time," Richardson said. "There's always this race between healing the fracture and continued structural support from the implant. If they start to fail, that could be a problem, so that is a continued concern."
Owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who live down the road in West Grove, Pa., are daily visitors, as is trainer Michael Matz. They remain amazed at the colt's ability to handle so much adversity.
"If that was me in that stall, I don't think I'd have as good an attitude he has," Roy Jackson said. "He just seems to know he's got to go through this. It was the same thing with his racing. He knew what he had to do and did it."
Barbaro won his first five races, then blew away his rivals in the Kentucky Derby by 6 1/2 lengths. He was being hailed as the next Triple Crown winner before the Preakness, and a misstep a few strides out of the gate nearly cost him his life.
But now, hopes are high for Barbaro. He still receives e-mail at www.vet.upenn.edu/barbaro/ — no indication that he is computer literate — and cards, flowers, stuffed animals and posters keep pouring in.
"I just can't explain why everyone is so caught up in this horse," Roy Jackson said. "Everything is so negative now in the world, people love animals and I think they just happen to latch onto him. People are looking for a hero, for something positive. The fact that he's gotten through this and is a fighter, people seem to relate to that."
The Jacksons will be spending tens of thousands of dollars as Barbaro wends his way toward recovery. If he is able to breed — male thoroughbreds must stand on their hind legs during breeding sessions — he will be able to pass along some of his regal genes. But even with a full recovery, Richardson said Barbaro always will have a hitch in his giddyup. That is not a bad thing, though.
"Actually, he could run around, he could trot, but he wouldn't have a symmetrical gait," Richardson said. "A best scenario is he would have an asymmetrical gait but would be absolutely comfortable."
Thoughts of a Triple Crown — Matz will always believe Barbaro could have been the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 — have been replaced by a more pastoral vision.
"I hope he heals up so he can at least be out in a field and have some grass and be in more of a natural environment," Jackson said. "That's what we're hoping for."
The Jacksons are not alone.
"It's impossible for us to thank everybody who has supported the horse as he goes through this," Jackson said. "It's meant the world to all of us."