Barbaro making healthy steps

Signs all positive on road to recovery

June 21, 2006|By SANDRA MCKEE | SANDRA MCKEE,SUN REPORTER

Kennett Square, Pa. -- Barbaro lifts his head from the fresh green hay he is eating in the back of his stall in the intensive care unit in the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals. He has heard something, and turns to see who has come to his stall door at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center.

Gretchen Jackson, who owns the Kentucky Derby winner with her husband, Roy, places her hand on the bars above the door.

"Come here, baby," she says.

On the way through the hospital, Jackson has been excited. She can't wait to show Barbaro to his visitors, who include Kathee Renger, a friend who found Barbaro's mother La Ville Rouge for the Jacksons, who bought her and bred her to Dynaformer to create the Kentucky Derby winner.

As she leads her guests through the routine of entry - a foot wash outside the building that houses the ICU, and putting on blue paper shoes and a hospital cloak that covers every inch from neck to ankles - she says: "He's beginning to look like he used to. I think he's put on some weight. He looks really good."

And, in fact, as Barbaro approaches his stable door, he does look good.

"Why, he's blooming," says Renger, handing Barbaro a piece of carrot. "I didn't expect to see him looking like this."

If you didn't see the cast covering the lower half of his right rear leg or the "skin rubs" on his left side, irritation from the sling that transported him from stall to surgery to recovery, you'd think you were seeing the old Barbaro - not the one fighting to recover from the broken leg he suffered in the May 20 Preakness Stakes.

In the pictures distributed in the days after his four-plus hours of surgery, Barbaro, though looking better than expected, still showed signs of having been through a major event. He seemed a smaller version of the horse everyone admired as he danced toward the Preakness starting gate, and his ribs seemed more prominent than usual.

But in his stall, Barbaro's ears are pricked. His coat is shiny. His eyes are bright as he anticipates treats. In the course of the next 40 minutes, he will have an array of carrots, apples and peppermints. His ribs, perhaps helped by such a diet, have all but disappeared.

As he is admired, Barbaro shifts his weight to his injured leg and attempts to scratch his belly with his left hind leg.

"I think maybe the skin on his side is itching as it heals," says Gretchen Jackson, watching closely. "You know [trainer] Michael Matz and [assistant trainer] Peter Brett come over here every afternoon to take care of his side. You can see how well it is healing.

"It has just been amazing. People are so kind and care so much. Barbaro certainly isn't forgotten. And I know it takes them a good half hour to come up here to take care of him.

"Look at that," she says, interrupting herself. "Look at the way he moves around to get his food. He's so quick."

Jackson pauses.

"You know, we were planning to race him his 4-year-old year," she says. "Economically, it would have been stupid. But we were going to run him on the grass. He's such a wonderful horse. You just hate to see him in here."

Around Barbaro's stall are handmade signs from the Jacksons' grandchildren and Matz's children. And there's a get-well card from Paco, the pony that led him to the Pimlico starting gate. They are just a few of the signs, cards and gifts that have arrived for the racehorse that has captured hearts around the country and the world.

Jackson marvels at the way people beyond Barbaro's immediate connections have rallied around him and worry about his recovery. She worries, too.

"I think he's looking at three months or more before he can maybe go someplace else," Jackson says. "We're really scared to ask what can happen."

Dr. Corinne Sweeney, director of the facility, says the main concerns now are laminitis, an infection that can occur in Barbaro's left foot due to overuse, and the healing process. Though the bone is mending, it has to continue to heal before the screws and plates give out because they cannot support the horse.

"But there is no reason to think at this point it won't continue to heal well," Sweeney says.

"We just go week by week," Gretchen Jackson says. "Last week, when they took the cast off, Dr. [Dean] Richardson said the leg didn't look grotesque at all, that it had shape. That was so good to hear ... but the job isn't finished yet."

Just before Jackson left Barbaro yesterday, the exit door beside Barbaro's stall was opened for another horse, and Barbaro was obviously ready to go, too. He came to attention and moved swiftly toward the outdoor light.

When freedom didn't come, he let his irritation be known, bucking and slamming his good hooves and his bad one on his stall floor. Jackson says she was glad to be there to calm him, and talked soothingly to her horse.

"Hey," she says, leaning toward him. "Your breath smells really good, like peppermint."

Barbaro flexes his jaw in a pressure-releasing yawn.

"I take that to mean he's thinking it over," she says. sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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