Poise on the track may save horse's life

Preakness Stakes

May 21, 2006|By DOUG DONOVAN AND BRADLEY OLSON | DOUG DONOVAN AND BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTERS

By all accounts, Barbaro has been as good a patient as he was a racehorse - and his poise is what may ultimately save his life, medical experts said.

"Without having that type of disposition, he wouldn't have made it this far," said Dr. James M. Casey, a Laurel veterinarian.

The 3-year-old colt faces surgery today at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa. From the moment jockey Edgar Prado heard a snap seconds after the Preakness Stakes started to the arrival of Barbaro at the hospital, doctors said the horse's grace helped it from compounding a catastrophic and rare injury.

According to Dr. Nicholas L. Meittinis, a veterinarian who treated Barbaro at Pimlico, the horse broke two bones in his right hind leg - the 4-inch-long pastern bone, below the ankle, and the 12-inch cannon bone above the ankle. The diameters of both bones are no bigger than the size of a tennis ball, he said.

All experts agree that Barbaro's racing days are over. But if he survives the recovery from surgery, he could go on as a stud.

It's the recovery, not the surgery, that they say is most dangerous.

The operation, which could last up to four hours, will proceed much like a human's surgery. Barbaro will be placed on a surgical bed, and general anesthesia will be administered through a tube placed down his throat.

The broken bones will be repaired with pins and plates, Casey said. As Barbaro awakens from his haze of anesthesia, he will likely find himself suspended by a sling in a pool to prevent him from thrashing about, Meittinis said.

To keep Barbaro from injuring himself during recovery, the colt will spend most of his time - for up to six months - tethered to a wall. He will be able to reach his water and food and hay, but Barbaro will have to sleep standing up.

"I haven't seen this exact injury before where they break both" bones, said Meittinis, a veterinarian since 1989. "This is an unusual injury."

So rare that one report by a California doctor stated that the "prevalence of deaths due to catastrophic, fatal injuries in racehorses is less than 2 per 1,000 race starts."

With bodies weighing upward of 1,300 pounds, medical experts said, breeding, training and genetics are what keep those spindly ankles from buckling under more often.

A horse's instinct, even after an injury, is to keep running, causing greater damage.

"Lesser skilled jockeys would have broken Barbaro's leg on the track, and he would have had to have been put down on the spot," Casey said. "You're only one step away from something like this."

Shortly after Barbaro's missteps, medical staff affixed a splint and moved the horse in an ambulance to Barn E, Stall 40, the Kentucky Derby winner's reserved space. There Meittinis and his associate Dr. Dan Dreyfuss sedated Barbaro, took digital X-rays and wrapped the injury in a pressure bandage.

Dr. Larry Bramlage, a veterinarian who attended to Barbaro at Pimlico, said blood circulation is one of the most life-threatening concerns with broken bones in horses.

"There's significant danger to the blood supply to the lower limb," Bramlage said.

As Meittinis described it, "The fracture can act like a knife and sever the blood supply to the limb below."

He said Barbaro's "thready" pulse at Pimlico indicated blood flow blockage and mild shock.

"It's not always apparent right away because there is swelling and you can't assess the [blood] circulation for a day or two," he added. "This horse had a tremendous amount of poise. He never tried to kick anyone. He was all business."

Barbaro was loaded into an ambulance and transported last night to the New Bolton Center, one of the nation's premier surgical centers for horses. Once there he was placed on analgesics and pain medication, and was suspended in a sling to avoid standing.

He was scheduled to be given fluids all evening, and six to 10 nurses and veterinary residents will monitor Barbaro all evening.

"There are some horses that just don't make it for some very strange reasons," said Dr. David Nunamaker, chairman of New Bolton's Department of Clinical Studies. "If the horse is a good patient, that helps. If he fights you and is contrary to what you want to do," it makes it hard for the animal to recover.

"There are lots of hurdles - recovering from anesthesia, and healing his fracture, which may take some period of time, he said. "This horse is a good patient."

doug.donovan@baltsun.com

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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