Published July 14, 2006
KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. – Barbaro was doing "much better" Friday morning, a day after his veterinarian said the Kentucky Derby winner was a "long shot" to survive a potentially fatal hoof disease.
"Barbaro was out of his sling for more than 12 hours yesterday, and he had a calm, restful night, sleeping on his side for more than four hours," Dr. Dean Richardson said in a statement issued Friday by the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center. "While his condition is stable, it remains extremely serious."
Richardson appeared upbeat earlier when he told The Associated Press that Barbaro had a "good night. He's doing much better."
Richardson told a packed news conference Thursday that the 3-year-old colt has a severe case of the disease laminitis in his left hind leg, and termed his prognosis as "poor."
Barbaro looked every bit the champion Thursday, but it's how he acts in the next few days that will determine how much longer he lives.
Laminitis, Richardson said, is an "exquisitely painful" condition, and Barbaro has a case so bad that 80 percent of the Derby winner's left hoof wall was removed Wednesday. It could take as long as six months for the hoof to grow back. The disease is often caused by uneven weight distribution to a limb, usually because of serious injury to another.
Barbaro shattered three bones in his right hind leg just a few yards after the start of the Preakness Stakes on May 20.
While the news was good Friday, Barbaro's condition could change at any time.
"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," a blunt Richardson said Thursday at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center.
"It could happen within 24 hours," he added.
The vet, who has been treating Barbaro since the colt's breakdown, said Thursday that Barbaro looks fine — "his ears are up, he's bright, he's looking around." But that doesn't reflect the true nature of his condition.
"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."
Barbaro is being treated aggressively with pain medication and remains in the same stall he's been in since being brought to the intensive care unit.
Only the sight of fiberglass casts on both hind legs — a longer cast is on the right leg — gives any indication that something is terribly wrong with Barbaro.
"If you look at this horse, it'd be hard to put him down," Richardson said.
That precisely is the awful task that could be imminent because of a disease that has no cure.
"It's a devastating problem in horses that nobody has a solution to," Richardson said.
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 resection.
"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 winner, 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.
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."
Edgar Prado, the jockey credited with saving Barbaro by quickly pulling him up in the Preakness, was devastated by the grim prognosis.
"It's very upsetting," he said. "Barbaro has shown to everyone what a fighter he is. He showed it on the track and with all the surgeries he's had. It just goes to show what kind of courage he has. He's a true champion, and is fighting every step of the way.
"All we can do now is hope and pray. We'll need a miracle, but maybe it will happen."