The tears for Barbaro have all been shed, and now people around the world anxiously await each daily report on the colt's condition. It's been more than a week since Barbaro's horrific injury in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), which set off an outpouring of emotion on a national scale never before seen in Thoroughbred racing.
Although the horse has had an "incredibly good week," according to Dean W. Richardson, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, head of surgery at the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine's New Bolton Center, he still has much to overcome.
There have been numerous theories on why the injury occurred, but it is all speculation. The latest theory comes from Pimlico Race Course officials who watched the race frame by frame and strongly believe Barbaro's right hind leg was struck by Brother Derek just before the colt's misstep.
The injury occurred shortly after the start of the May 20 Preakness, when jockey Edgar Prado heard a noise and felt the horse take a bad step. He abruptly pulled him up and dismounted, as a medical team rushed to the stricken horse. Subsequently, X-rays revealed three fractures above and below the ankle.
Richardson performed a six-hour surgery on Barbaro May 21, inserting 27 screws into a plate to hold the colt's shattered pastern together. Richardson said the first 10-14 days are the most important in regard to the risk of infection. After that, there is always the threat of other complications, the most dangerous being laminitis, or founder as it is commonly known.
According to Richardson's daily reports, the post-op recovery couldn't be going any better, with Barbaro, who remains in intensive care, handling everything with the same courage, toughness, and class he displayed during his undefeated, but all too brief, career on the racetrack.
Richardson said May 30 that the first nine days have gone incredibly well. "He's actually done far better than we could have ever hoped, so far," Richardson said. "He's perfectly comfortable and all his vital signs are normal. His blood work is good, and basically, at this moment, he could not look any better in terms of his medical condition. His prognosis is much better than it was, but he still has a long way to go.
"When we change his cast will literally be a day-by-day decision. Right now, this horse is walking so well on his limb, he willingly rests his left hind, and he he's very active walking around his stall. So, my inclination at this point is go day-by-day. There's no compelling reason to remove the cast. If he continues to look as good as he does he can continue to wear this cast for several more weeks. It has been a surprisingly good-fitting cast considering I felt there would be a little bit of loosening or swelling above the cast, neither of which occurred."
Originally, Richardson had stated that Barbaro's chances of recovery were 50-50. He jokingly said it is "now officially 51%."
"Seriously, every day that goes by is a big day. In terms of some of the complications, certain ones are more likely to rear their head in the earlier stages of the convalescence, such as infection. Laminitis or failure to fixation both can occur at later dates. There's no question that things are much better now in terms of prognosis, but he's still a long, long way from being discharged from the hospital."
In an attempt to reduce the risk of laminitis developing in the opposite foot, a special supportive horseshoe designed and patented by the Farrier Service at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine, was applied to Barbaro's hoof immediately after the surgery.
New Bolton Center farrier Rob Sigafoos explained that the shoe is designed to reduce the risk of laminitis by supporting the sole of the left hind foot, containing materials that minimize weakening and possible infection of the sole, and extending the length of the left hind foot, compensating for the additional length of the right hind limb created by the cast.
As for Barbaro's mental condition, Richardson said the colt "couldn't look a whole lot better in that regard. He's very active in his stall, and when a horse walks by the outside window, he's peeking out there trying to see who it is. If you were to look at this horse, I believe an objective person would not believe that this horse looks depressed. Michael Matz and (owners) Roy and Gretchen Jackson have been here every day and have looked the horse over, and I think they'd agree that he's bright and happy."
Richardson also said it is possible for Barbaro to go two or three months and still not be completely healed. "There are multiple elements to this injury, and to be perfect he's got to fuse his fetlock joint and his pastern joint, and we have to make sure he has no major problems with infection, drainage from the site, and foundering from the other side. So those things still could go wrong even at two or three months out.
"It is possible for his bones to heal to the point where they're very, very strong. What won't function on him is that he won't have normal mobility. He will never be able to do a dressage test, and he won't be able to gallop strongly or jump. At the very best, he'll have a hitch in his giddy-up. He will not be quite right, but there are lots of horses who can walk, trot, canter, gallop, spin around, and somewhat importantly, mount a mare; those things that you use your hind legs for. Yes, it is possible he'll can be active enough to do all that, but we're not even close to being at that point yet."
In the meantime, Barbaro's connections have been attempting to return to their normal lives, but that likely won't happen in its entirety until the son of Dynaformer is proclaimed out of danger, which won't be for another couple of months.
"We're hanging in there," trainer Michael Matz said May 26. "It's a big loss to fill, but what can we do? It was pretty hard on Sunday looking into that empty stall. But it makes it better when I can go over and see him and know that he's doing well. I thought he might lose some day, but I never thought he'd lose that way.
Matz, like most everyone, can only wonder what might have been. "Who knows how good that horse really was?" he said. "I felt we still had a lot left in the horse, and I was just sure he was going to win the Triple Crown. It's hard to take, and now I just feel bad for the racing public that they didn't get a chance to see him continue. This could have been one of the great ones. He looked like he was just starting to come into himself, the way he won the Derby and the way he was coming into the Preakness. Edgar said when he was warming him up, he was bucking, and he just felt so good."
Matz said he was informed by Pimlico officials that a frame-by-frame study of the incident shows Barbaro being struck by Brother Derek just before the accident.
"The stewards and Dr. David Zipf, watched the slow motion replay," Matz said. "They said it looked like Brother Derek's right foot hit him in the pastern. The front foot was stuck way out and as soon as it happened he head went up. If he was struck, he suffered no cuts at all. They basically said they're 80% sure he was hit someplace where he went off balance. We thought the condylar fracture might have happened first, but maybe it was just the opposite where the pastern went first and then it went up to the condylar fracture."
Although Matz said he wasn't able to see it as clearly as Pimlico officials, Lou Raffetto, the track's president and chief operating officer, said it was "pretty conclusive."
"We didn't want to make a big deal of this, because what happened happened, and you can't change that," Raffetto said. "We're not trying to defend ourselves; we don't feel we have anything to defend. We just watched it and sent the DVD to Michael, and he hasn't had the time to really look at it carefully. You have to look at it frame by frame to really appreciate it, which is what we did. We watched the head-on, the pan, and the stills.
"It's clear that Barbaro is inside of Sweetnorthernsaint in the three path before they get to the shadow of the building. And then he's clearly behind him two jumps later, and you can see that he drifts out from the head-on. Then when you go to the pan, you can see Brother Derek two or three lengths behind him and running up to the field. He runs into a spot just as Barbaro drifts out into the same spot. As they come to where the shadow of the building crosses the track, near the eighth pole, you see Brother Derek reach out with his right front foot, and just when it appears to make contact with Barbaro's right hind, Barbaro's head goes up, and you see (Alex) Solis (on Brother Derek) pull out with his right shoulder. And when Barbaro's head goes up, you can see his right hind leg twist out sideways and he puts the leg down awkwardly.
"By putting all the pieces together and watching it as closely as we did, we're pretty confident that's what happened. If this were pro football, they'd probably say it was inconclusive. It's probably 80% so, but it doesn't change anything. We just sent it to Michael to let him form his own conclusions. You talk about the racing gods, if Barbaro doesn't drift out this never happens. If Brother Derek doesn't break slowly this never happens."
When asked about Pimlico's findings, Prado said, "It's a mystery no one will ever know for sure. There's nothing we can do about the past. We just have to look to the future."
Solis, however, refuted Pimlico's claim. "There's no way he could have struck Barbaro; I would have felt it," Solis said May 30. "We were close behind him, but not that close. Getting that close to him and going that speed, if I had struck him I would have gone down. It was just one of those things that happened. I could hear his leg snap, and thank God I had enough space and time to get out of there. Luckily I wasn't that close to him and I was able to react quickly. Horses are like any other athlete. You can have a basketball player going for a rebound and he twists or breaks his leg. And you've got skiers going over jumps and breaking bones. It happens."
Matz is amazed at the amount of support he and everyone connected with the horse has been getting, and the number of e-mails that have come pouring in to the horse from all around the world. "I'll bet we received more than a thousand e-mails, and letters are coming in all the time," he said.
"I might never get another horse as good as him," Matz said, "but I look at this way: I'm lucky enough to have had him when I did. It's tough, but we just have to go on, and hopefully, we'll get there again.
For Prado, the steady stream of tears the days following the injury have for the most part dried, but thoughts of Barbaro are always with him. His spirits were lifted after he visited the horse for the first time May 30.
"I'm still heartbroken, and I will be for a long time, but I definitely feel a lot better after seeing him," Prado said. "It's been tough to concentrate on anything this past week, but I had to go forward. I just wanted to come visit him to show him I still care for him. He looks very bright and strong. He even wanted to get out of his stall. All we can do now is pray for him to have a speedy recovery and for him to enjoy the rest of his life.
"Saturday was a nightmare," Prado said last week. "I reacted pretty quickly and I tried to hold him together. The horse did his job by not fighting with me. I stopped thinking about the race and the Triple Crown right away. The only thing I could think of was him. I wanted to pull him up and comfort him as soon as I could. Each second felt like an hour. He's an intelligent horse. He knew he was hurt and he knew what he wanted -- he wanted to survive.
"The hardest part of my life was when I lost my mother (this past January). Saturday was the toughest day of my career. It was love at first sight with Barbaro. He's very special horse. It goes to show you that in America, everything is possible. The technology here is superior to so many other countries. You have a better chance to survive any kind of injury or illness here than you do anywhere else. I'm glad he's getting what my mother didn't: a chance to survive.
"Of all the tears I have cried, if tears could heal a wound, Barbaro would be healed by now. I've been thinking about him and I've been crying on and off. I can't do any more."
In addition to all the cards and letters, Barbaro has received apples, carrots, fruit baskets, stuffed animals, and even religious statues from a compassionate public that has embraced the colt and his fight for survival. Many of the gifts are displayed all along the fence outside the clinic.
Two of the signs pretty much sum up people's feelings. One reads, "Believe in Barbaro," and the other, "Believe in Miracles."
From The Blood-Horse, www.BloodHorse.com.
About the Author
Steve Haskin is Senior Contributor to The Blood-Horse magazine, sister publication to The Horse.
POLL: Visits from the Vet