Injury cause may remain a mystery

Expert offer a variety of theories about why Barbaro shattered leg

Barbaro: Road To Recovery

May 23, 2006|By DENNIS O'BRIEN | DENNIS O'BRIEN,SUN REPORTER

A horse can have a tiny bone fracture that causes a leg to break. Or it can have genetic flaws, stumble on a pebble or be jostled by another horse.

There is no evidence to suggest such factors contributed to Barbaro breaking his leg in the Preakness on Saturday, and trainers, veterinarians and thoroughbred experts say exactly why he did could forever remain a mystery.

"There's a hundred different things that can cause it, and a lot of times it's impossible to say which one it was. It can be inherited. It can be the jockey, too much training, the bone itself, the track, the trainer or any of those things," said Steve Wood, superintendent of the dirt track at Del Mar racetrack near San Diego.

Trainers say it is unlikely that Barbaro stumbled on a pebble as they consider the track at Pimlico well-groomed. The horse's training also drew nothing but praise yesterday.

"He was managed brilliantly," said Don Litz, president of the Maryland Stallion Station, a breeding center in Glyndon.

Litz and others had a variety of theories about why the Kentucky Derby winner shattered his right hind leg in multiple places.

The horse may have caused some hard-to-detect damage to his leg when he thrust himself from the gate in a false start before Saturday's race. That could have set the stage for the break as the horse reached full speed about 220 yards into the race, Litz said.

"What is the one defining factor that sets him apart? He broke from the gate twice," Litz said.

But others don't think the false start was a contributing factor.

"I don't think we'll ever know," said Dickie Small, a horse trainer since 1971 at Pimlico.

What experts do know is this: A thoroughbred exerts 5,000 pounds of pressure on its hooves as it lands each step during a typical race. The pressure is a result of the horse's 1,200 pounds and its 35 mph speed during full stride. And all of that is borne by a leg bone about the size of a human wrist.

"It's really remarkable that they don't injure themselves more often than they do," said Billy Boniface, stallion manager at Bonita Farms and a spokesman for the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

Experts say that a thoroughbred's physical characteristics - matchstick legs that support a large body and its ability to move so fast - make it more prone to injury than other types of horses.

"They're athletes, and the fact is they can be pretty fragile," Wood said.

Front leg injuries are more common than the kind experienced by Barbaro. A thoroughbred's racing stride exerts more pressure on the front than on the hind legs.

"They land and they accelerate on their front legs," Small said.

Small has had two horses with hind-leg injuries similar to Barbaro's in the past five years. Both were geldings, and both were euthanized.

A horse's legs are not routinely X-rayed before each race. That would be impractical and is unnecessary because a qualified trainer or veterinarian can spot signs of trouble - swelling, pain and excess heat - in a routine physical examination, experts say.

"If you're a horseman, you can tell just from looking if there's a problem," Boniface said.

And even an X-ray can tell only so much.

Tiny microfractures are common in thoroughbreds, veterinarians say. And while they usually heal naturally without causing serious injury, they can turn the slightest misstep into a broken leg.

Race horses often develop microfractures, due to stress from bearing the weights they must carry. The tiny fractures can eventually contribute to a leg break, but they will go undetected by an X-ray, said Dr. Carl Kirker-Head, a veterinarian and horse expert at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

Such damage occurs frequently and usually heals without treatment, but sometimes the cracks do not have time to heal. "It just takes a wrong step for that micro-crack to cause a catastrophic injury," he said.

He emphasized that there is no evidence that Barbaro had microfractures and said that horses often break legs without them.

Some observers say that in the breeding and purchasing of thoroughbreds, the racing industry favors speed in the bloodlines over durability traits found in horses that might have longer careers.

A majority of today's thoroughbreds can be traced to a single stallion, the Darley Arabian, born in the early 18th century. Some experts argue that breeding solely for speed could be causing thoroughbreds to suffer more orthopedic problems and fractures.

"They're breeding to sell. What people want to buy out of the sale are the speedier-looking horses," said Dan Liebman, executive editor of Blood-Horse, a trade journal.

Boniface acknowledged that speed is a major factor for anyone considering the purchase of a thoroughbred.

"We're always trying to look for an animal that performs best for us on the track. We're doing that every day," he said.

But he said that the lines are carefully mixed to avoid weakness from inbreeding and to ensure quality offspring.

In addition, Barbaro was the result of outcross breeding, the practice of using a mix of winning bloodlines with relatively unknown stock.

"Every now and then you reach out and try to get an outcross, and Barbaro was a product of that," he said.

dennis.obrien@baltsun.com

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