Gate-crashing, injury unlinked

Vet, jockeys, trainers all agree nothing was detected after Barbaro's false start

May 23, 2006|By SANDRA MCKEE AND KEN MURRAY | SANDRA MCKEE AND KEN MURRAY,SUN REPORTERS

When Barbaro pushed his chest through the starting gate before the start of the 131st Preakness Stakes on Saturday, he set the stage for a lot of second-guessing over his sudden, unusual and life-threatening injury.

Though those closest to Barbaro, jockey Edgar Prado and trainer Michael Matz and even his surgeon, have said Barbaro's false start had nothing to do with his breaking his right hind leg near the start of the Preakness, speculation has continued.

"I think it's good to set the record straight," said Dr. David Zipf, chief veterinarian for the Maryland Racing Commission and the vet who was responsible for the health of the horses at the starting gate.

Though he wasn't caught by NBC's cameras covering the race, Zipf was on the track, closely observing Barbaro after his false start.

"I was standing behind the gate when he broke through," Zipf said yesterday. "I followed him through the gate. As they turned him, I watched for a nosebleed, bruises or a shoulder injury. I walked out about 15 or 25 feet, about at the spot where the outriders caught him. Then I trailed him to see how he was moving.

"I could see no problems. If there had been, I would have called the stewards and asked for more time. But he looked perfect."

Jerry Bailey, a Hall of Fame jockey and now an ESPN commentator, noted how well Barbaro got out of the gate.

"He broke very well," Bailey said. "If he had injured his back leg before the break for the race, he probably would not have left the gate very well. It affects his pushing power. He would've broken sluggishly."

And more than just one set of official eyes is watching the horses before the start.

John McDaniel, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commision, said: "There are about a dozen binoculars on them. The stewards, the vet, the starters. If a horse isn't physically well, there is a standard procedure. A call would be made."

Like many watching Saturday's telecast, Zipf noticed Barbaro bucking during the pre-race parade and saw Prado look back at Barbaro's hind legs.

"He looked right and left," Zipf said. "He felt the horse jump and was looking to see if he got scalped. That's what we call it when a horse sometimes overreaches with his hind legs and gets hooked by the front hooves. He looked and I looked and there was nothing, no scratches."

Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, said if there had been anything amiss with Barbaro during the post parade or after the early break, Prado would have told Zipf to take a look.

"If Edgar had had any concerns, he would have said, `Hey, Doc, look at that,' " Hopkins said. "I assure you jockeys are not going to put themselves in jeopardy, and they're not going to put the animal in jeopardy. That's why the vet is there."

Prado said after the race that his horse was "perfect" at the start.

Hopkins said the commission requires the state vet to observe the horses at least three times before they are loaded into the starting gate.

The first inspection comes race morning, when they're walking or coming back from the track or the vet can ask the horse be brought out of his stall. The second is in the paddock while they're being saddled, and the third is just before they are loaded into the gate.

There are no required physical exams, though Zipf said he traditionally does one during the morning inspection.

A vet judges the horse's soundness better by sight than touch, Hopkins said. He "can see how a horse is traveling by watching, while even if you ran your hands over his legs, you wouldn't feel a cracked bone."

In Zipf's estimation, there was nothing wrong with Barbaro before the race.

"I physically checked his legs in the morning," Zipf said. "I watched him being saddled, and I watched him walk after the false start. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and he looked perfect."

Local trainers agreed wholeheartedly the gate played no role in the injury.

"I don't think one had anything to do with the other," said Tim Tullock, who stables his horses at Laurel Park. "He broke through the gate, but pulled up nice and smoothly and jogged back perfectly sound."

"Not related," said Richard Small, who trains his horses at Pimlico. "It had nothing to do with the gate. It just happens. And it always happens at a time when you least expect it."

"If he had done it [injured himself] in the starting gate," said Pimlico trainer Holly Robinson, "he would not have been able to make his way back [to the gate]."

Because of Matz's reputation, no one said Barbaro went to the gate with a pre-existing injury.

"Michael trained that horse to perfection," Tullock said. "Let's not overlook that. I've known Michael a long, long time, since I was a young kid. If there was any indication of a problem, that horse would never have left the stall."

Said ex-jockey Bailey: "This man cares as much, if not more, than anybody, about horses. He's always put the horse's welfare first. I bet there wasn't a pimple on this horse."

As rare as it is for a horse to break a hind leg, Robinson said she once had a horse who broke his rear cannon bone, had surgery and then broke the other rear leg two years later. The horse recovered from both breaks.

"It must have been some genetic sort of weakness," she said of her horse. "The more I looked into it, I found other family members with those kind of problems."

Bailey writes it off to the risky nature of the business.

"When athletes of any kind perform at the highest level, they're susceptible to injury," he said. "Unfortunately in our business, it's life-ending sometimes."

Said Robinson: "I pray that [Barbaro] makes it. It would be so much better for the public. I'm not sure it's better for Barbaro."

smm2me@aol.com ken.murray@baltsun.com

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