Love, not money, is factor in bid to save horse's life

May 22, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG | JOHN EISENBERG,SUN REPORTER

Before he began to operate on Barbaro yesterday, Dr. Dean Richardson, the colt's surgeon, said horses that experience such catastrophic ankle injuries usually are euthanized.

So why are Roy and Gretchen Jackson, Barbaro's owners, endeavoring to save their Kentucky Derby winner?

It's all about emotion, said Bill Boniface, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association.

"The Jacksons have a connection with him. You get that a lot in this game," said Boniface, the stallion manager at Bonita Farm in Harford County. "Horses stop being horses and start being part of the family. When one like that goes down, owners go to the hilt and do what they can to save him."

After Barbaro broke down in the Preakness Stakes on Saturday with a right rear leg injury that veterinarians immediately said was career-ending and life-threatening, many in the public assumed he would be worth saving largely because he won the Kentucky Derby on May 6 and is worth tens of millions of dollars as a stallion.

Smarty Jones, winner of the 2004 Derby and Preakness, was sold to a syndicate for $40 million and generates a $100,000 stud fee every time he covers a mare at Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky.

But Boniface said that "chances were very slim" Barbaro could have a stud career on a rear ankle that had shattered and been reconstructed.

Thoroughbred stallions rear on their hind ankles to cover mares from behind, Boniface said, and a weakened rear ankle probably couldn't support the horse's weight.

"This is the worst kind of injury as far as being able to have a future of mounting mares," Boniface said. "Everything depends on how much the leg heals, of course, but an injury of this severity in that location makes it very doubtful.

"Realistically, they're probably looking at just turning that horse out to pasture."

Given what the Jacksons are going to pay for Barbaro's surgery and convalescence at the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa., that is hardly a sound financial proposition.

"Just to walk in the door at New Bolton, you're talking [$5,000] before the surgery even starts," Boniface said. "It's very, very expensive, what they're going through."

But the Jacksons are extremely wealthy - Roy Jackson's maternal grandfather was William G. Rockefeller, treasurer of Standard Oil Co. - so financial considerations seemingly aren't a factor.

"They feel the horse was more than just another horse, and they have the ability to pay for it," Boniface said. "And it's not just because he's famous. I've seen owners do this with horses that broke down in a $5,000 claiming race. It all depends on what the owner's connection [to the horse] is. Usually the heart takes precedence over the brain. That's why [the Jacksons] are trying everything they can to save Barbaro."

Jim Steele, longtime manager of Shamrock Farm in Woodbine, said it was too soon to discount Barbaro's future at stud.

"The horse will determine whether he makes it and what he can handle," Steele said. "Twenty years ago, with this kind of injury, they wouldn't have tried to save him. They would have put him right down. But great advancements [in veterinary medicine] have been made, and there is the potential for much better results. It's premature to make any conclusions."

During a news conference last night at the New Bolton Center, Barbaro's trainer, Michael Matz, said, "I hope he can have a career as a stallion."

Josh Pons, whose family runs Country Life Farm in Harford County, agreed that the horse's future at stud probably is the last thing on the Jacksons' minds.

"If you're the Jacksons or Michael Matz, you're not saving him to be a stallion. You're saving him because you owe it to him to try to save his life, even if all he is going to do is stand around in a field," Pons said. "You get bound to these horses in this business. The Jacksons aren't concerned that Barbaro might have an injury that prevents him from jumping mares. They just want to give him a chance to live."

And the cost?

"He's earned it," Pons said. "So what if surgery and everything costs $100,000? That sounds like a lot, but he earned $1.2 million for winning the Derby."

Many in the racing industry surely are pleased to see the Jacksons making the effort. The death of such a popular, talented horse would dampen enthusiasm for a sport that needs fans. As it was, the nationally televised images of Barbaro breaking down Saturday were devastating.

"I was watching with some people who were new to the sport. It was really hard for them to see that," Boniface said. "What can you say? It can make people not want to watch."

If anything, the Jacksons' attempt to save Barbaro injects a twist of compassion into a sad story.

"Everyone is glad they're giving him a chance," Steele said. "They're going to heroic extremes, for sure. But the horse deserves the shot. And that's really all this is about."

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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