Barbaro, who thrilled racing fans with his sublime victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and captivated many millions more worldwide with his gut-wrenching fight for life after suffering a catastrophic breakdown in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), was euthanized Jan. 29.
Veterinarians at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center George D. Widener Large Animal Hospital in Kennett Square, Pa., where Barbaro spent eight months in a gallant bid for survival, euthanized Roy and Gretchen Jackson’s homebred because of the debilitating complications his fractured right hind leg caused in his other limbs.
“We reached a point where it was going to be difficult for him to go on without pain,” Roy Jackson told the Associated Press. “It was the right decision and the right thing to do.”
Barbaro’s heart and determination, enduring numerous surgeries and never losing his will to live, will likely be remembered even longer than his nearly flawless racing feats. His story quickly moved from the sports pages to the front page, and his horrific breakdown before a national television audience, which threatened to become yet another black eye for the sport, instead became a story of love and inspiration as the Jacksons and New Bolton’s medical team showed the world the incredible level of care and medical advances possible.
Barbaro, a son of Dynaformer out of the Carson City mare La Ville Rouge, won six of seven starts and earned $2,302,200. His only loss came in the Preakness.
Barbaro, although undefeated, flew under a lot of radar screens prior to the Kentucky Derby. His trainer, Michael Matz, received most of the attention by virtue of his history as an equestrian silver medal-winning Olympian and as a hero for helping pull survivors from an airplane crash in 1989. But after Barbaro’s remarkable tour de force in the Derby, a new hero was born.
Barbaro became just the sixth undefeated Derby winner, joining SMARTY JONES, Seattle Slew, Majestic Prince, Morvich, and Regret. His dominating performance in besting 19 foes under the Twin Spires inspired a racing world always on the lookout for superstars. After so many near misses over the last decade, Barbaro was thought by many to have the best chance of becoming America’s 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed in 1978.
Many in the vanquished Derby field skipped the Preakness, all but conceding that Barbaro was head and shoulders the sharpest and fastest 3-year-old on the scene. He was a horse that could seemingly do it all. His first three victories came on the turf, all by daylight margins. New Year’s Day 2006 saw him cruise to victory in his first graded stakes effort, the Tropical Park Derby (gr. IIIT) at Calder Race Course. He answered the question on how he’d adjust to dirt racing with a three-quarter-length win crosstown over a sloppy strip at Gulfstream Park in the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) Feb. 4. The grade I Florida Derby was next, and he came through again, beating 10 foes. But his half-length victory still left some doubters, particularly with a deep Kentucky Derby field featuring other outstanding runners such as Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron, and Sweetnorthernsaint, who left the gate the lukewarm favorite.
After stumbling at the start, Barbaro, at odds of 6-1, relaxed into a stalking trip, and put the race away on the final turn, grabbing the lead, and then running away from his field with each and every stride down the stretch. Barbaro’s final quarter-mile, run in :241⁄5, was the swiftest since Secretariat’s :231⁄5 in 1973. His 61⁄2-length winning margin was the longest since eventual Triple Crown winner Assault won the Derby by eight in 1946.
Barbaro was under the radar no longer, his impressive performance having captured the imagination of the racing world. The media descended on his home at the Fair Hill Training Center, a five-star hotel for horses near Elkton, Md., that includes woods-shaded trails and grass gallops.
Barbaro was sent off the 1-2 favorite in the Preakness against eight others, but ominously broke through the starting gate and had to be reloaded, an occurrence which normally makes it harder for a horse to run well after expending that extra energy.
In the first few jumps of the race, Barbaro broke down in his right hind leg and was alertly pulled up and attended to by his rider, Edgar Prado. As not only racing fans but a much larger audience that had been captivated by Barbaro looked on in shock, Barbaro was vanned back to his barn for radiographs and then on to New Bolton, where he was operated on the following day for a condylar fracture of his cannon bone, a shattered first phalanx, a fractured sesamoid, and a dislocated fetlock joint. The first phalanx was broken into more than 20 pieces.
What began as a horse racing story mushroomed into one of national interest, as the network news shows and national magazines covered the gallant horse’s story and preliminary recovery. His surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson, warned that even with the best care available, Barbaro’s chances of survival were no better than 50-50. As the weeks passed and the patient continued to do well with minimal complications, optimism grew. Get-well cards, letters, and pictures from around the world were sent to Barbaro. In addition, $1.2 million was raised for the Barbaro Fund, which is being put toward medical equipment and facilities.
Dr. Dean Richardson, who performed the initial surgery on Barbaro and headed the team that took care of the horse at New Bolton, had warned throughout that Barbaro’s recovery would take many months, and the road to it was strewn with obstacles such as infections and laminitis.
And after seven good weeks, Barbaro’s condition changed for the worse just after July 4. He was treated for infections in his injured leg and in his uninjured left hind hoof. A titanium plate and many screws were replaced in a procedure July 8, and as Barbaro grew more uncomfortable on his injured leg, he placed more pressure on the uninjured one, bringing on a severe case of laminitis, in which the hoof wall becomes detached from the bone holding it in place. A resection procedure was performed July 12 that shaved off 80% of his hoof wall. Richardson called it “as bad a case of laminitis as you can get” at a July 13 press conference in which he downgraded Barbaro’s condition and called Barbaro’s potential recovery a “longshot.”
However, Barbaro outran the grim prognosis once again. While the slow healing process of growing back the hoof wall began, Barbaro rallied through the summer months and into autumn, enjoying daily walks and grazing sessions outside. As 2006 came to a close, there was talk that Barbaro could soon be moved out of intensive care and possibly take up residence at a Kentucky farm, where the healing process could continue. As recently as December, Dr. Richardson noted that the right hind leg was getting stronger, and the laminitic left hind foot would present the biggest challenge going forward.
Indeed, on Jan. 10, Richardson removed damaged tissue from the laminitic foot, and three days later removed yet another section from the hoof. On Jan. 24, Barbaro had two new casts applied to his hind legs. He received a custom-made plastic and steel brace on the right hind leg, and a special orthotic brace on the right hind foot. Barbaro was found to have sustained a deep subsolar abscess in his right hind foot Jan. 27, forcing his doctors to embark on a risky procedure to reduce the pressure from bearing down on that foot. They placed his right hind in an external skeletal fixation device in an attempt to provide the foot a chance to heal. Two steel pins were placed transversely through his right hind cannon bone, and connected to external sidebars that were connected to a lightweight alloy foot plate.
“What directly led to this action was not in the area of the original fracture,” said Richardson. “Because of lameness in his laminitic foot, he increased the weight he put on the right hind foot and developed a bruise and abscess. He also had developed laminitis in both his front feet. It’s like a deck of cards—when one thing starts to go, a lot of cards go.”
Richardson said the night before Barbaro was euthanized, the horse, for the first time, did not lie down. “He was distressed by his condition for the first time. We’ve said all along if we couldn’t control his discomfort, we wouldn’t go on.”
The decision was then made to end Barbaro’s struggle before he experienced pain. “He had eight months, the majority of which he was a happy horse. The end couldn’t have been any more peaceful,” said Richardson.
Added Roy Jackson, “There is nothing in this entire process we would do differently, including the decision today. I just want to thank everyone for their prayers and thoughts over the last eight months.”