Steve Haskin: Reflections on Barbaro and His Fight for Life

On the morning of Jan. 29, Dr. Dean W. Richardson, head of surgery at New Bolton Medical Center, made the somber announcement most everyone had been prepared to hear more than eight months earlier. Barbaro had been euthanized. The wave of grief that was anticipated back then now came swiftly and unexpectedly.

After so many months of hope and high expectations, Barbaro’s fight for life and the miracle story he had written were over. There would be no happy ending to this fairy tale. One did not have to hear Richardson’s words to know they were as heavy as the millions of hearts around the world that had embraced Barbaro and his struggle to survive against all odds.

What made the news of Barbaro’s death even harder to accept was that only a month earlier, talk had begun about the colt’s possible release from New Bolton. When Richardson, although still guarded, said that Barbaro’s release could come in the “not so distant future,” it brought a wave of elation and optimism. The horse was happy, eating, and enjoying his daily walks and grazing sessions. Christmas brought a deluge of cards and gifts to New Bolton, and spirits were high.

Then, virtually overnight, the colt suffered a “significant setback” when some new separation of the hoof was found requiring additional removal of tissue, and a pall once again hung over the Kennett Square clinic, as it did back in May and again in July when Barbaro developed a severe case of laminitis that would ultimately lead to his death.

Following surgery to remove more of the left hind hoof, Barbaro “improved significantly” and the crisis appeared to have been averted. But it was soon followed by another when a “deep subsolar abscess” developed on the colt’s right hind foot, which necessitated yet another surgical procedure on Jan. 27, in which two steel pins were placed through the cannon bone to support an external skeletal fixation, which would eliminate all weight bearing on the foot and give it a chance to heal. Barbaro, despite being placed under anesthesia well over a dozen times since his arrival at New Bolton, remarkably came out of this latest complex and risky procedure eating and in good spirits.

But this time Barbaro was beyond all hope, and Dr. Richardson and owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson were forced to come to the realization that they had run out of miracles.

Having witnessed live the shocking breakdown of Ruffian and the horrific spills of Go For Wand and Pine Island, it is difficult to come to terms with the question: which is worse, watching the quick, relatively painless deaths of those magnificent fillies or riding the roller coaster of emotions that  continued for more than eight months with Barbaro, ultimately leading to the same fate?

The answer, at least in Barbaro’s case, is the latter. The colt proved that greatness does not have to be achieved only on the racetrack. His incredible will and indefatigable spirit kept him alive long enough to show the world just how much emotion is capable of pouring out of one’s heart for a Thoroughbred racehorse, and how far the field of veterinary medicine has come. He made a hero out of an unknown veterinarian, whose dedication, wit, and wisdom turned him into a James Herriot-like figure to millions of people.

Rather than dwell on the outcome, it is best to concentrate on the heroic efforts that were made to save a horse that lived eight months longer than he should have. It was not disease or injury that ended Barbaro’s life, it was recovery. If there is a flaw in nature’s power of healing, it is that it cannot be applied to the Thoroughbred, to whom the words stationary and prone do not co-exist. Infused with the fiery blood of its ancestors, the Thoroughbred’s impetuous nature sadly is in constant conflict with its fragile legs, and it is that nature that often leads to its demise.

Although Barbaro had to endure a great deal of physical and mental anguish, he also experienced the ultimate in human kindness and compassion, while being pampered like the noblest of kings. And he leaves behind a legacy that far transcends his stunning victory in the Kentucky Derby.

Like everyone else, I was prepared to bid a tearful goodbye to Barbaro immediately following the Preakness, and then again in July when laminitis appeared. I was prepared yet again in early and then late January. I no longer have to prepare for the worst. After eight months, during which time the horse’s struggle made national headlines around the world, Barbaro’s ordeal finally is over.

Cervantes said, “The guts carry the feet, not the feet the guts.” Barbaro’s guts carried his feet to victory after victory. But it carried his heart a lot farther.

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