KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. -- Horse racing fans were uneasy last night, awaiting an update on the imperiled condition of Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro.
After the horse suffered three fractures in his right hind leg during the Preakness, the first 6 1/2 weeks of his recovery at the New Bolton Center were encouraging, but the past eight days brought infections that now have his doctors and owners considering euthanasia.
The worst fears of Dr. Dean Richardson, the chief of surgery for the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, were realized when Barbaro developed a "catastrophic" case of laminitis in his left rear hoof.
It has nearly destroyed the hoof, which was uninjured in the Preakness but has been bearing the brunt of his weight for nearly two months.
During a 23-minute briefing with the news media yesterday, Richardson was asked the chances for Barbaro's recovery.
"I don't want to put a percentage on it," Richardson said. "Poor - I'd be lying if I said anything else, but it [recovery] isn't unheard of. As long as the horse is not suffering, we're going to continue to try. It's worth the effort. ... I'm not going to sugarcoat it. It's a long shot.
"If you asked me two weeks ago, I thought we were going to make it. Today, I am not as confident, which for me is unusual."
The latest dire development for Barbaro, who underwent a second surgery on his right hind leg Saturday, elicited another outpouring of support.
Floral arrangements and baskets of fruit, carrots and peppermints were lined up outside the admissions office of the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals, where Barbaro continued to remain in the intensive care unit with casts on both hind legs.
More than a dozen television crews attended Richardson's briefing.
Richardson said that under the best-case scenario, it would take an additional six months for the left rear hoof to heal. But he said doctors and owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson were already weighing whether to put the horse down if he experienced severe discomfort.
In deciding whether to end an injured horse's life, how is his pain monitored?
"You look in the eye, whether or not they're eating," Richardson said. "It [the decision to euthanize] wouldn't happen minute to minute. It could certainly happen within a day or two. Today, the horse looks very good. The horse has a strong constitution, a great appetite, one of the reasons the Jacksons and Mr. Matz [trainer Michael] and I decided to go a little further.
"If you look at this horse, you know it would be hard to put him down."
Richardson said the pain was being managed with epidurals and other measures.
"If they stop working," he said, "we're going to quit on the horse."
Richardson said his staff and the Jacksons were aware of the scrutiny they are under.
"It's very difficult for the Jacksons," he said. "It's hard for us. It's hard for them. The Jacksons are going to be second-guessed, if we quit now, if we quit then, if we quit too early, quit too late.
"It is subjective. There are a lot of people involved in making this decision. Every person involved cares about the well-being of the horse."
Richardson said he was in constant communication with the Jacksons and Matz, who is based at Fair Hill in nearby Cecil County, Md. The Jacksons and Matz could not be reached for comment.
Richardson likened what Barbaro is enduring to the regeneration of a human toenail or fingernail that has been yanked out, only on a limb bearing considerably more weight.
"A horse walks on the tip of its middle digit," Dr. Richardson said. "Evolutionally speaking, it essentially is walking on the nail of its middle finger.
"It's a loose connection between the bone and the foot that's exquisitely painful to the horse. The only way to cure is many months of the horse growing a hoof wall, the same way you would regrow a nail if it pulled out."
Richardson described the severity of the laminitis in the bleakest terms.
"The left hind foot is basically as bad as laminitis gets," he said. "The horse is as bad as it gets. We removed a large section of the hoof wall. It's in a foot cast. Twenty percent of the hoof wall is still attached. The horse is reasonably comfortable. He's in a foot cast, with foam padding and antiseptic dressings, to see if we can regrow the foot."
The removal of the dead tissue occurred Wednesday, the fifth procedure the horse has undergone in 10 days. Yesterday, Barbaro was resting in a sling that enables him to move his haunches.
"The reality is," Richardson said, "when you come in to see the horse every day, he nickers to you, he's eating well. He's capable of walking around the stall. His heart rate is low, and his temperature is back to normal after the previous surgery. The ability on his right hind leg appears to be doing well."
Richardson was asked what would occur if Barbaro were to develop laminitis in another hoof.
"If that were to happen," Richardson said, "we would not continue."