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By Kathryn Levy Feldman | The social-work department at Penn’s Ryan Veterinary Hospital has one of the first programs of its kind created to address the emotional needs of pet owners suffering the loss of a companion animal and to recognize the importance of the human-animal bond. As of January 28, the link to social-work services on the hospital’s website had on the order of two views per day.

On January 29—the day the injured Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was euthanized—that number shot up to 11,000, a powerful reminder of the extent to which the public embraced this gallant thoroughbred and his uphill struggle for survival. Ever since shattering his right hind leg in the Preakness on May 20, Barbaro had been in the intensive-care unit of the George D. Widener Large Animal Hospital at the School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center. While the fracture ultimately healed, Barbaro succumbed to complications from laminitis, a crippling hoof disease that is often fatal in horses.

“We are truly heartbroken to learn of the death of Barbaro. He was a magnificent animal, who fought towards recovery throughout these past months with a grace and spirit that was an inspiration to us all,” Penn President Amy Gutmann said when the news became public, prompting coverage in mainstream media outlets from Sports Illustrated to The New York Times. “Our hearts go out to his devoted owners, Gretchen and Roy Jackson, to his brilliant and caring surgeon Dean Richardson, and to all the devoted staff at Penn’s New Bolton Center who took such magnificent care of Barbaro all these months.”

On January 30, a sign put up at the Kentucky Derby Museum read simply, Barbaro, thanks for the dream.

In the beginning, the dream was to win the Triple Crown. Barbaro’s stunning 6-length victory in the Kentucky Derby, the fifth-largest margin of victory ever, caught the world’s attention. Having been teased by such horses as Smarty Jones (2004) and Afleet Alex (2005), each of whom came within one race of the elusive title, regular horse-racing fans and the wider public eagerly embraced the magnificent colt and his team of handlers. This time, it seemed destined to happen.

It didn’t hurt that Team Barbaro was straight out of central casting. Over the course of their 30 years in racing, Roy Jackson C’61 and Gretchen Jackson C’59 of West Grove, Pennsylvania, had a reputation for doing right by the horses they owned and bred. The horse’s trainer, Michael Matz, won a silver medal in the 1996 Olympics and was chosen by his teammates to carry the American flag in the closing ceremonies. Jockey Edward Prado had ridden two horses to Belmont victories that spoiled recent Triple Crown bids by War Emblem in 2002 and Smarty Jones in 2004.

Only 18 horses in history had gone into the Derby undefeated, and Barbara was only the sixth to come out of it still unbeaten. But the Hollywood script ended about 100 yards into the Preakness, when Barbaro suffered
what his surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson, chief of surgery and the Charles W. Raker Professor of Equine Surgery, would term “a single catastrophic misstep … an accident.” As the world watched in horror, Prado pulled up his magnificent steed, whose right hind ankle dangled in mid-air, seemingly unattached to his leg.

Track veterinarians, including Dr. Scott Palmer V’76 and Dr. Dan Dreyfuss, former surgical resident at New Bolton, rushed to his aid and stabilized the fractured limb with a splint. As the colt was loaded into an equine ambulance and rushed to Penn’s New Bolton Center, the dream of victory gave way to one of survival.

On May 21, in what he termed “a very, very difficult surgery,” Richardson inserted 27 titanium screws and a 16-hole steel plate into Barbaro’s leg. A bone graft from the horse’s pelvis replaced pieces of his bone that had shattered. Miraculously, so it seemed, the horse made an uneventful pool recovery from anesthesia and walked back to his stall. But Richardson’s assessment—he called Barbaro’s odds of survival “50-50”—belied that reassuring image.

He remained guarded about his patient’s progress, even as Barbaro received state-of-the-art medical care and seemed to respond well to the ministrations of his devoted caretakers. Infection was always a concern, as was laminitis, which often develops in a previously healthy foot when a horse’s weight is distributed unevenly. To prevent laminitis, Barbaro’s left foot was fitted with a custom-made glue-on shoe with extra padding to equalize the length of his back hind legs as well as help distribute his weight more evenly.

Two days post-surgery, Richardson reported that the horse was walking well on the cast. His vital signs remained normal and his appetite was good. The dream became one of beating the odds.

Cards, letters, food, and posters inundated New Bolton Center on a daily basis for almost eight months as Barbaro became a national obsession. Two anonymous donors established the Barbaro Gift Fund, which supports ongoing patient-care and expansion of the George D. Widener Large Animal Hospital.

According to Dr. Corinne Sweeney, associate dean for New Bolton Center and chief operating officer and executive hospital director, more than $1.1 million in donations has been received and the gifts just keep coming.

“This generous outpouring has enabled us to purchase some ophthalmology equipment, another pool raft, a new operating room table, and some additional slings that have benefited other patients in this hospital,” she says. “The Barbaro Gift Fund has had an immediate impact on the horses in our care.”

By January 29, more than 60,000 well-wishers had used a link the vet school set up on its website to e-mail Barbaro. Visits to the website, where updates on Barbaro’s condition could be checked, averaged between 5,000 and 6,000 per day, a four-fold increase over the pre-Barbaro rate. On some days, the number of hits reached 177,000.

It’s hard to know whether this year’s 14-percent increase in vet-school applications is due to the “Barbaro effect,” but the added visibility has been good for both the University and veterinary medicine. “By shining a light on the profession, we’ve allowed the general public to learn, firsthand, what it is that vets can do, not only in orthopedics but across the range of conditions we treat,” explains Sweeney. “The attention has all been good for New Bolton, Penn, and the vet school, but it doesn’t mean that it has been easy.”

In July Barbaro developed an infection in his right hind limb that required additional surgery, followed by an “extremely serious” case of laminitis in his left hind foot, which required Richardson to remove 80 percent of Barbaro’s left hind hoof (at which point he called his recovery “a long shot”).

But remarkably, the horse once again seemed to defy the odds, recovering enough by the fall to go outside and graze. On November 6, nearly six months after the accident, Barbaro’s cast was removed from his right hind leg. The fracture had healed. In December, there was even talk of moving him to a warmer climate to continue his recuperation.

But in the second week of January, Barbaro suffered a series of setbacks that would prove insurmountable. Part of the problem was related to the laminitis-stricken left hind hoof that had only partially regenerated. Richardson had always been concerned about the uneven growth, and he tried a series of procedures to both realign the bone and encourage the outer wall of the hoof to regenerate.

When Barbaro developed a painful abscess on his right hind foot, Richardson performed a risky procedure in which two steel pins were inserted in the horse’s canon bone to eliminate all weight from being borne on the foot.

Two days later, Barbaro developed laminitis in his two right front feet. That left him, according to Richardson, “without a good leg to stand on.”

Roy and Gretchen Jackson had always said they would keep trying as long as there was a chance that their horse could lead a pain-free life. With that possibility gone, they were in attendance on January 29, when Barbaro was euthanized in his stall.

“It is rough, but not to be there is rough,” Gretchen Jackson told the press that afternoon.

“It was the right decision,” Roy added; “it was the right thing to do. We said all along that if there was a situation where it would become more difficult for him, then it would be time.”

He was also quick to point out that Barbaro’s short life had not been in vain. While the world will never know how good a racehorse he truly was, or whether or not his progeny would have duplicated or surpassed his accomplishments, Barbaro’s remarkable journey and the attention it brought to the sport of racing, as well as to the profession of veterinary medicine, will long be remembered.

Barbaro’s injury brought attention and much-needed funding to laminitis research. After having earlier established the Laminitis Research Fund at the vet school—which had raised in excess of $200,000—in February the Jacksons donated $3 million to create a new endowed professorship in equine-disease research named for Dean Richardson. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association has also set up a research fund at Penn in Barbaro’s memory.

In the wake of Barbaro’s injury, many racetracks are installing synthetic surfaces that are said to be more forgiving to thoroughbreds’ fragile legs. Such surfaces will be mandatory at major racetracks in California by the end of the year.

Florida’s Gulfstream Park, the site of one of Barbaro’s impressive victories, recently established a veterinary-medicine scholarship at the University of Florida in his honor. There has been talk of a racing museum in Chester County, Pennsylvania, to commemorate the area’s talented thoroughbreds, including Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, and Barbaro.

Lessons learned from Barbaro’s treatment may also benefit other animals. “There will probably be horses in the future who will live based on what happened with Barbaro,” Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, told CBS News.

For Gretchen Jackson that would be a dream come true. As she told the press the afternoon that Barbaro was put down: “I hope we can turn our love [of horses] into an energy that supports horses throughout the world. Not just in our own country and not just the thoroughbreds we love so dearly, but all horses. Each of us might find a certain path that interests us. Whatever it is, I just pray that you will follow that path in support of the horse.”

Kathryn Levy Feldman, who wrote “Something About Barbaro,” in the July/Aug Gazette, is working on an authorized book about him.

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