Outlook for long term uncertain

First news is good, but doctor warns again about survival

Barbaro: Road To Recovery

May 23, 2006|By BILL ORDINE | BILL ORDINE,SUN REPORTER

KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. -- The immediate news was upbeat yesterday concerning Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner who suffered a race career-ending injury to his right hind leg at the Preakness Stakes, but his long-term prognosis remains uncertain.

The morning after surgery to reconstruct three bones above and below his ankle, the dark bay colt was standing, eating and even nickering - horse talk for flirting - at the mares who share the intensive care unit at the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center.

"He's all boy, I guess," Barbaro's trainer Michael Matz said, managing a rare smile since the Preakness favorite pulled up lame just after the start of Saturday's second jewel of the Triple Crown.

The Preakness was won by Bernardini, and the third jewel, the Belmont Stakes, is in three weeks in New York.

Matz and Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, visited Barbaro yesterday.

"He's very bright, happy, eating well, doing all the things a horse should be doing," said Dr. Dean Richardson, the equine surgeon who oversaw Barbaro's procedure.

However, Richardson repeated his prognosis of Sunday that it will probably be months before it's known whether Barbaro will survive the injury, even though yesterday the colt was bearing the appropriate amount of weight on his repaired leg.

"We've only gotten one part of the job done. No one can give really accurate odds on something like this, but I would still say that his chances are 50-50 at this point," Richardson said. "I can't say they're better than that, because I know of all the possible things that can go wrong."

The first medical shoal to be navigated is avoiding or treating any surgical infections. For that, Barbaro is receiving an antibiotic intravenously. His lower leg is also casted.

A further concern is a condition called laminitis that occurs when a horse favors his hurt leg and causes damage to the opposing leg, causing injury to the good leg's tissue that connects the hoof to the underlying bone.

But in the long run, what could prove fatal is if Barbaro, in the course of normal activity, undoes the repairs that required 23 screws and a bone graft taken from his pelvis. The hoped-for result is that the bones will fuse and allow Barbaro to lead a normal life at pasture and, it is hoped, serve as a stallion for breeding.

"All the metal put in there to put all the bones back together could potentially fail," Richardson said. "That horse is stronger than all the metal that I put in there. It's possible he could break the whole thing down."

Unlike humans, horses cannot be kept immobile during a long recuperation. Horses can lie down periodically, but extended periods of reclining can cause internal problems that also could be life-threatening. Nor will Barbaro undergo rehabilitation in the way a similarly injured human might. Simply being able to evenly distribute his weight is what's hoped for in Barbaro's case.

Richardson also said that during the operation, when the bone could be closely examined, there was no sign of prior maladies, and he dismissed conjecture of irresponsible conduct regarding Barbaro as "nonsense." His conclusion was that the injuries were the result of an accidental misstep.

The best result for the colt, who was stabled and trained at Fair Hill Training Center in Cecil County, would be to continue life as a stud, the usual lucrative role for winners of Triple Crown races. To do so, though, he would have to be able to bear weight on his hind legs in order to cover mares. Artificial insemination is not permitted when breeding thoroughbred race horses.

"The Jockey Club doesn't allow it," said Don Litz, president of the Maryland Stallion Station. "It's just not done. Basically, if you did it, you'd diffuse the quality of the thoroughbred. All the stud fees would drop, and you wouldn't have any control over the quality of the mares being bred. People would just buy it and breed whatever mares they pleased."

Though some have questioned whether Barbaro, because of his severe injuries, would be able to cover mares naturally, Litz said there is precedent of horses with fused bones being successful stallions, such as Nureyev, a champion race horse who went on to be a prized sire.

"His whole rear hock was fused totally rigid, right down to his ankle," Litz said. "So you can't rule it out. Of course, you'd have to take precautions. Nureyev stood in a very small paddock and was very closely watched. But it's not out of the question."

The entrance to the New Bolton Center is southern Chester County, Pennsylvania continued to be festooned with signs of encouragement from fans, such as "Be Brave Barbaro" and "Believe Barbaro."

Matz said he appreciated the public support.

"He's a horse that the people really got attached to and he tried his best every time he ran and I'm sure he was trying when the accident happened," Matz said. "It means a lot that everyone paid so much attention to him.

"I'm sad he couldn't continue," the trainer added, "because I think he could have been a Triple Crown winner."

Richardson reiterated that there was no specific timetable for when Barbaro would be out of danger.

"Bad things can happen on a minute-by-minute basis, but good things only happen over a period of weeks to months," the surgeon said. "So realistically, any day things could go very badly for us with this case and we could have to call it quits very abruptly. ... As far as when I'd feel comfortable that he's going to make it - several months from now."

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Sandra McKee contributed to this article.

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