The first rule of the horse business, as Gretchen remarked in a press conference three days after Barbaro’s surgery, “is not to fall in love with the animal because it’s so painful when something happens.”

Clearly, the Jacksons broke that rule with Barbaro—and apparently not for the first time. As The New York Times reported, they have also paid hefty medical bills for “a couple of older horses no one has heard of because they did not make it to the racetrack.” Dean Richardson elaborated on May 23: “I’ve known the Jacksons a long time. [Barbaro] could have absolutely no reproductive value and they would have saved this horse’s life.”

“We have an obligation, “ Roy told The New York Times. “We are their keepers.”

Long before he ever won a race, Barbaro began collecting admirers. The Times quoted John Stephens, at whose training center in Florida Barbaro learned the basics of being a racehorse, as saying, “[H]e was memorable because he was a big rangy colt with a great mind. Most horses that age don’t know when to use their energy … He was different. He was a natural.” Peter Brette, Matz’ assistant and a former champion jockey in Dubai, recalled the first time he got on Barbaro’s back. “He had perfect balance and perfect structure, and you could hardly feel him beneath you,” he said, according to the Times. “When they told me he was just a two-year old, it took my breath away.”

With Barbaro, Matz knew he had a “once in a lifetime” horse on his hands and planned a Triple Crown campaign that defied conventional wisdom, spacing Barbaro’s prep races a longer-than-normal five to eight weeks apart—with the Jacksons’ complete blessing. “Without a doubt, it was the simplest lead-up, without a wrinkle in the whole thing,” says Gretchen. “Everything just went according to what we hoped.” The horse never missed a day of training because of injury and by all accounts was incredibly fit both before and after his stunning victory in the Kentucky Derby. “When I led him into the Winner’s Circle at Churchill Downs, I was amazed that he wasn’t even wet; it was a trip in the park for him,” Gretchen says.

He was just as fit going into the Preakness, according to both the owners and trainer. Speculation about miscued gates, horses clipping heels at the start, and other conspiracy theories aside, Barbaro’s breakdown was, as Dr. Richardson told the Times, “a single, catastrophic misstep … an accident.”

Unfortunately, it is one that happens fairly frequently: about 1.5 times per 1,000 starts, according to David Nunamaker, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Penn and chairman of clinical studies at the New Bolton Center. “This is more dangerous than any sport you have heard of.” Part of that danger is inherent in a racehorse’s anatomy: Its four legs are relatively long and thin compared to the more than 1,000 pounds they typically support. When you combine anatomy with speeds of over 40 miles per hour over distances of more than a mile, bones break, missteps follow, and dreams shatter in the blink of an eye.

Jockey Edgar Prado is widely credited with pulling the horse up quickly, but not quickly enough to prevent Barbaro’s multiple fractures. Richardson credits the horse’s “tremendous athletic ability to pull up … literally gallop[ing] on three legs for a few strides” with “saving his life.”

There was never any doubt that Barbaro was going to New Bolton Center—or that Dean Richardson was going to perform the surgery, say the Jacksons. Richardson had treated some of their other horses over the years, and he considers himself “good friends” with Michael Matz. “It is fair to say that everyone at New Bolton was rooting for Barbaro to win the Triple Crown,” Richardson says, although none of the vets there had ever had a reason to see the horse. “In fact, I know the vet who takes care of Barbaro, and [the horse] was perfectly healthy prior to this injury,” he adds.

Richardson, who was in Florida at the time of the accident, had been watching the Preakness at a friend’s equine hospital, where he had just finished a surgery as the race was about to get under way. The TV set was small, “but you could see enough,” Richardson told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I knew it was a very bad injury.” When he looked at Barbaro’s digital x-ray, which was e-mailed to him within 30 minutes of the accident, “it was worse than I expected,” he added. “I tried to sleep, but didn’t succeed real well.”

Richardson flew back to Philadelphia the next morning. By then, Barbaro had been transported to New Bolton, where he spent a relatively peaceful night, even lying down for a couple of 45 minute naps, before being prepped for surgery.

Dr. Corinne R. Sweeney, the vet school’s associate dean for New Bolton Center, emphasized that while Barbaro is clearly a “celebrated” horse, “saving large animals is business as usual for us. This is what we do 24/7.”

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

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FEATURE: Something about Barbaro
By Kathryn Levy Feldman

Clockwise from left: Owners Gretchen and Roy Jackson greet jockey Edgar Prado, Barbaro’s rider; Barbaro and special recovery pool at New Bolton; X-rays before and after surgery.