Published July 13, 2006
KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. – He still looks every bit the champion. Only the fiberglass casts on not one but both of Barbaro's hind legs are indicators of something terribly wrong.
"His ears are up, he's bright, he's looking around," Dr. Dean Richardson said Thursday. "If you look at this horse, it'd be hard to put him down."
That precisely is the heartbreaking task that could be imminent because of a hoof disease so serious Richardson said the Kentucky Derby winner is "a long shot" to survive.
"It could happen within 24 hours," Richardson said during a news conference at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center.
Richardson said Barbaro has a severe case of laminitis in his left hind leg — a painful, often fatal disease caused by uneven weight distribution in the limbs.
"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," he said.
Richardson, who has treated Barbaro since the colt suffered catastrophic injuries in the Preakness on May 20, said 80 percent of the horse's left hoof wall was removed Wednesday with the sudden onset of the disease.
Though he looks just fine, that doesn't reflect the true nature of his condition, termed "poor" by Richardson.
"I'd be lying if I said anything other than poor," he said. "As long as the horse is not suffering, we are going to continue to try to save him. If we can keep him comfortable, we think it's worth the effort."
Until his misstep at the Preakness, Barbaro's career was nothing short of brilliant.
He won his first five starts, including the Florida Derby. His 6 1-2-length victory at the Derby was so convincing he was being hailed as the next likely Triple Crown champion — and first since Affirmed since 1978.
But seconds after the gates swung open at Pimlico, that career was cut short when the colt broke down, his right hind leg flaring out awkwardly because of three broken bones.
Race fans at Pimlico wept and within 24 hours the entire nation seemed to be caught up in a "Barbaro watch," waiting for any news of his surgery and condition.
And for the longest time, it all seemed to be going well.
Barbaro's first six weeks of recovery were relatively smooth — despite five hours of surgery to insert a titanium plate and 27 screws into his three shattered bones.
Each day brought more optimism: Barbaro was eyeing the mares, nickering, gobbling up his feed and trying to walk out of his stall. There was great hope Barbaro somehow would overcome the odds and live a life of leisure on the farm, although he'd always have a hitch in his gait.
Richardson, along with owners Gretchen and Roy Jackson and trainer Michael Matz, all believed the colt had a chance to recover.
Until last week, when Barbaro's condition steadily worsened.
The colt underwent three surgical procedures and four cast changes on the injured leg, followed by a hoof wall re-section to remove 80 percent of his left rear hoof.
"I really thought we were going to make it two weeks ago," Richardson said. "Today I'm not as confident."
Within hours of the grim update, roses and apples began arriving at the hospital, and hundreds of get-well e-mail messages were posted on a Web site set up by the New Bolton Center.
The vet didn't mince words: "It's as bad a laminitis as you can have. It's as bad as it gets.
He said he has discussed the situation closely with the Jacksons, who have stressed that their main concern is for Barbaro to be pain free.
Several telephone messages left for the Jacksons and Matz were not returned.
Richardson said Barbaro's injured right hind leg was healing well, but because a horse has to be evenly balanced to carry his weight, laminitis set in on the other foot. Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown, was euthanized due to laminitis in 1989.
"The reason we cut away the hoof wall is because the hoof wall is not connected" to the bone, he said. "If you had a nail that was separated from the end you'd pull it off. It's dead tissue that's in the way of living tissue."
Richardson said it would take several months for the hoof to grow back, and as long as six months to be completely healed.
"What we're doing on this horse is absolutely unusual, but it's not unheard of," he said. "It's a devastating problem in horses that nobody has a solution to."
Barbaro has been fitted with a sling to prevent sudden movements and allow him to shift his weight from side to side. The main goal is comfort.
"The sling is on only some of the day, when it's off, he can lie down," Richardson said. "We are not torturing this horse."
Meantime, he's being treated aggressively with pain medication and remains in the same stall he's been in since being brought to the intensive care unit at the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals.