Still legging out life as long shot

Six months after the Preakness, Barbaro still a model patient and national celebrity

Horse racing

November 20, 2006|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun reporter

KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. -- When the demands that come with owning Barbaro become too much, Gretchen Jackson simply goes to see her horse.

"I go there and just sit down in the bedding in his stall and talk to him," she said last week. "He's a very gentle stallion. He allows me to be able to do that, and I find it very relaxing. I look at those legs and think about what they were able to do, to think how they carried him to victory in the Kentucky Derby."

Today marks six months since Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner by 6 1/2 lengths, shattered his right rear leg in the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course and began a long road to recovery at the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center.

Jackson has never seen a horse in Barbaro's condition. Yes, she has seen them with broken legs that had to heal and she's seen them with laminitis, a disease she calls the "cancer of horses, a horrible, painful disease."

Barbaro developed laminitis in his left hind foot six weeks after he broke his right hind leg, resulting in the removal of 80 percent of the hoof wall.

But Jackson said she has never seen a horse who had to overcome broken bones and laminitis at one time and grow back nearly a whole hoof.

And maybe that is part of the reason so many have been so fascinated by this thoroughbred for so long.

As you turn in to the New Bolton Center driveway, the fence is still adorned with posters. The most striking reads, "Grow Hoof Grow," which is what Barbaro's left rear hoof must do for him to survive as a normal horse, able to stand on all four feet.

But there are changes, too. The area is quiet now. The guard at the entrance is gone. The television trucks with their spiraling antennae have left the scene, and reporters no longer stake out the reception area and hallways.

Barbaro is still here, tucked up in the intensive care unit. But things have changed for him, too. Last week, he moved to a much bigger stall in the neonatal care unit, while the yearly cleaning and painting is being done in his usual ICU quarters. He doesn't see so many media people, either. The Jacksons have requested a cutback so the horse can relax and heal.

"We've had celebrity patients, yes," said Dr. Corinne Sweeney, the hospital's director. "But one that has drawn the attention of the world? No. There has never, never been this much media attention at New Bolton, at the Veterinary School or the University of Pennsylvania. The extent, the duration and the magnitude of the story and the duration of the public attention has not waned. It's unprecedented."

Celebrity vet

While Barbaro remains the center of attention, his surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson, has become something of a star, too.

Local resident and former NFL coach Dick Vermeil recognized him in Burton's Barber Shop in Kennett Square. When Richardson attended a Philadelphia Flyers game, fans approached him when he went to the concession stand.

"Aren't you the doctor who takes care of Barbaro?" several fans asked him.

The recognition has spread even further.

"Did he tell you Dancing with the Stars has contacted him?" Jackson asked. "They've talked to him several times on the telephone.

"Did you know Dean originally wanted to be an actor?"

Richardson did not mention the program during a visit last week, but he showed he can be a bit of a ham, and so did his patient. They liked putting on a show.

Picking up an apple, Richardson slid open the stall door and stepped inside. As he was in the process of taking a bite of the apple, Barbaro walked up, wiggled his nose inches from the apple and stuck out his long pink tongue. Just before Barbaro could complete his play for possession, Richardson finished his bite and moved the apple.

The vet laughed, lowered the apple and allowed the horse to take his own large bite.

"He's doing very well," Richardson said. "He's filling out and he weighs 1,130 pounds now."

Barbaro's current condition is a long way from where it was in May.

The five-hour surgery necessary to repair the damage to the horse's right rear leg was "one of the most complicated," Richardson said. He noted that the break was "one of the worst in terms of how we had to fix it."

Except for two weeks in early July, Barbaro's recovery has been mostly on a positive track. But in July, an infection flared in his broken leg and a major case of laminitis attacked his left foot.

That, Jackson said, was a blow.

"I knew when we went into it we were talking about five months from the get-go," she said. "Then the laminitis, that was not good news. When Dean said it could take up to a year for him to recover from that, it was like finding yourself back behind the starting gate in May. But what are your choices?"

Another surgery was required to clean out the infection and replace much of the hardware (27 screws and a long stainless steel plate) from the original surgery on his broken right leg and to remove most of the hoof wall on his inflamed left foot.

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