After the Kentucky Derby winner’s shocking injury in the second leg of the Triple Crown, his owners—alumni Roy and Gretchen Jackson—turned to Penn’s New Bolton Center to save their beloved horse’s life.

There is something about the outside of a horse

that is good for the inside of a man.

—Winston Churchill

Black Beauty. National Velvet. Seabiscuit. Secretariat.

Great horses are part of the collective American consciousness. In fiction and fact, we fall in love with their power, their stamina, their speed, and their hearts. And more than anything, we love to watch them run. Across open plains, down country lanes or around modern racetracks. There is little to match the raw excitement of thoroughbreds challenging each other at what they were born and bred to do.

Which is why, on the first Saturday in May, we were transfixed by the sight of one horse emerging from the pack of also-rans and winning the Kentucky Derby. For the next two weeks even those who didn’t know a filly from a foul ball wondered: Will this be the year? Will this be the one? Aren’t we due? After all, it’s been 28 years since Affirmed won the Triple Crown.

It seemed that all the ingredients were in place: An undefeated colt won the Derby by 6 1/2 lengths, the fifth-largest margin of victory ever, and had the pundits invoking Secretariat. The horse was bred and owned by 30-year veterans of the sport, highly respected in the industry, whose stable name, Lael, means loyalty in Gaelic; trained by a legendary equestrian (three-time gold-medalist in the Pan American Games, three-time Olympian and silver-medalist in the 1996 Atlanta games) who had also survived a plane crash, pulling three children to safety; and ridden by a jockey who knew in his heart and his hands that he was aboard a “special” mount. They were horse people in the truest sense, whose thoughts and actions rightfully centered on the horse—a magnificent, dignified beast who seemed to tolerate all the fuss because it came with the job he lived to pursue: running and winning.

Until it all fell apart, 100 yards into the Preakness, while we watched and wept for what should have been.

 

Today that horse—Barbaro, as anyone who reads a newspaper or watches television must know—holds court from a 12-by-13-feet hay-lined stall in the intensive-care unit of the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals at the School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center. At press time, he continued to make an impressive recovery from the career-ending injury he suffered in the Preakness, May 20, at Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore. Ten days after 27 screws were inserted in the shattered canon, sesamoid, and long-pastern bones of his right hind leg, Barbaro’s progress was such that his surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson, chief of surgery and Charles W. Raker Professor of Equine Surgery at Widener Hospital, was ready to amend his initial prognosis of a “50-50” chance for his patient’s survival. “I was going to call a news conference to say it’s officially 51 percent,” Richardson joked. “Seriously, every day that goes by is a big day.”

For Barbaro, certainly, and also for the horse’s owners, Roy Jackson C’61 and Gretchen Jackson CW’59 of nearby West Grove, Pennsylvania. The outpouring of public support—each day hundreds of cards, letters, flowers, balloons, religious medals, fruit baskets, stuffed animals, and bushels of carrots, apples, and peppermints arrive from people all over the world—has helped them deal with the “gamut of emotions from the euphoria of the Kentucky Derby to the devastation of the Preakness” and put to rest what might have been.

“You can either sit around and feel sorry for yourself or get along with life,” Roy muses. Three days after Barbaro’s surgery, Gretchen said, “It’s not about money, and it’s not about limelight. It’s more about the horse. And the beauty of it and the integrity … it does exist in horse racing.”

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 06/28/06

FEATURE:
Something about Barbaro
By Kathryn Levy Feldman

Photography by Sabina Louise Pierce

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Doctor and patient:
Surgeon Dean Richardson
with Barbaro.