Saving a Great Racehorse

You can see the X-rays on the Web, of bones crisscrossed by dark fracture lines like weathered boulders, and even if you can't name the parts—pastern, cannon, sesamoid—it's obvious that something ghastly happened. To Dean Richardson, one of the country's leading veterinary surgeons, it was "about as bad as it could be." Before a crowd of 118,402 assembled to cheer on Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro to a hoped-for victory in the second race of the Triple Crown, the dark-bay colt took a wrong step. His weight came thudding down on the slender bones of his right hind leg, which shattered, and as jockey Edgar Prado eased him to a stop it was already apparent that he would be in a fight for his life. Richardson, who had just finished an operation on a horse in Florida, immediately made plans to return to Philadelphia, where he is chief of large-animal surgery at the veterinary school of the University of Pennsylvania. Barbaro, in an equine ambulance, escorted by state troopers who cleared the roads to minimize jarring stops and starts along the way, arrived Saturday evening at Penn's George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals, in suburban Kennett Square. Early Sunday afternoon, the two met in the operating room.

A Thoroughbred racehorse, who may carry nearly 1,300 pounds of horse and rider at 40 miles an hour, is always just a step away from disaster. "Thoroughbreds are by definition fragile," says Steven Crist, publisher of the Daily Racing Form. "They are not particularly well-constructed animals. If you designed a horse [for durability] you'd give him a smaller body and thicker legs like a Clydesdale." Of course, not many people would pay to watch Clydesdales race. On average, Crist says, a horse breaks down on the track 1.5 times for every 1,000 starts, a statistic that has remained fairly constant for decades. If airplanes crashed at the same rate, no one would ever fly.

And while people usually survive a broken leg, horses often don't. Certainly, after suffering multiple leg fractures they would never be expected to race again. "A horse just doesn't function well on three legs," Richardson says. Infection is a serious risk, either at the fracture site or in the opposite foot, which sometimes breaks down from the stress of the additional weight it must bear. But you can't keep them off their feet; horses lying down develop problems with their lungs and digestive systems. All by itself the pain of a bad injury—or the psychological stress it induces—can be fatal to horses. For that reason, most horses with an injury like Barbaro's would be destroyed, sometimes right at the track. But Barbaro, unbeaten in six races before the Preakness, is potentially worth as much as $30 million as a breeding stallion. And apart from that consideration, his wealthy owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, were determined to keep him alive. An owner should never become too attached to a horse, Gretchen Jackson mused last week, because you might have to kill him someday. But she didn't take her own advice. Asked if she had "fallen in love" with Barbaro, she answered simply: "Oh, yes."

At Widener, Barbaro was taken to an 11-foot-by-13-foot hay-lined stall in the intensive-care unit, where the splint applied at the track was reset and he was given painkillers and intravenous fluids. Surgery was scheduled for Sunday; Richardson, who had to fly up from Florida in any case, believes that horses are calmer after resting the night than if they're rushed into surgery right after an accident. When he arrived at the hospital, Richardson was encouraged by Barbaro's appearance in his stall, standing quietly in no apparent pain. Barbaro, keeping his weight off his injured leg, hobbled to the operating room, where he was anesthetized, placed in a sling and hoisted onto a three-foot-by-eight-foot operating table. Over four hours, the team of 10 doctors and nurses pieced Barbaro's leg back together with a bone graft taken from the pelvis, a steel plate across two major joints and 27 screws. The resulting X-ray looks more like the cross section of a bridge truss than anything associated with a living organism. Then he was lifted again, onto a floating platform in a tank (his legs encased in waterproof tubes), where the anesthesia was reversed—a precaution to keep him from awakening while lying down and trying to stand on his own. Finally, he was returned to his stall in the air-conditioned intensive-care unit, where he will stay indefinitely—monitored and checked around the clock, petted and cosseted and fed hand-picked grass and the choicest apples and carrots of the bushels that adoring fans have sent his way.

The most important factor in his recovery will be keeping him comfortable on the injured leg. His first week passed uneventfully, but, as Richardson warned reporters, "bad things can happen any time with horses with these kinds of injuries; good things take a long time to happen." It will be several months before anyone can pronounce him out of danger.

Even if Barbaro survives, he may be useless at stud, if his injuries prevent him from mounting a mare. (The Jockey Club, the official Thoroughbred breed registry for North America, keeps the game interesting by requiring horses to mate the way they did it on Noah's Ark. Otherwise, a single stallion could father every horse in the country by artificial insemination.) But if he proves able to breed, he could command a stud fee of $100,000 for a single breeding session, 60 to 80 times a year for 10 to 20 years, according to racing authority Sean Clancy, a former steeplechase jockey and coauthor of "Saratoga Days." His value as a stud won't be known for sure until his offspring start racing, no earlier than 2010; the top sire in the country today, Storm Cat, commands $500,000 for each foal he sires.

To the racing industry, long starved for public attention except on the three Saturdays a year the Triple Crown races are run, the tragedy of Barbaro's injury was tempered by the nationwide outpouring of affection. Flowers, letters and edible treats streamed in, as did get-well wishes to a Web site ( the hospital had providently established to solve the problem of how to send e-mail to a horse. But the attention has also given new life to the perennial charge that breeders, in their quest for speed, have produced horses that break down too easily. On its Web site, PETA, the animal-rights group, quickly designated Barbaro as a symbol for what it called the "cruel" and "dying" sport of racing. "Categorically, no," Richardson replied when a reporter asked about overbreeding. "These are massive animals running fast. There's no evidence whatsoever that the prevalence of [injuries] is increasing."

In fact, Richardson says, veterinary medicine has made "major improvements" in surgical techniques and pain management over the last couple of decades, all of which should contribute to a good outcome for Barbaro. But the extraordinary measures taken on his behalf also served as a reminder that if Barbaro weren't potentially worth millions of dollars, or if his owners weren't wealthy themselves, the steps he took on the track at Pimlico very likely would have been his last. "Sometimes," Richardson says delicately, "the economic value of an animal can be outweighed by the costs." But sometimes, between a man and a woman and a horse, economics isn't the only thing that counts.