Heartbreak at the Preakness Stakes

Washington Post horse racing columnist Andy Beyer talks about Barbaro's horrific injury in Saturday's Preakness, and what it means for the struggling sport of horse racing.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Last week, Barbaro was favored to win the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore. And many believed he would go on to Belmont Park in New York and become the first Triple Crown winner in almost 30 years.

But just a few moments after the Preakness Stakes got underway Saturday evening, catastrophe.

(Soundbite of Preakness Race Announcer)

DAVE JOHNSON (Sportscaster) And Sweetnorthernsaint is going to run with him. Bernardini is away third on the outside. Diabolical is fourth. Barbaro, Barbaro, I believe he's been pulled out. Barbaro's been pulled up. An astonishing development here. Barbaro's been pulled up by Edgar Prado. He is out of the race and out of the Triple Crown. He appears to have injured his right rear leg. His right hind leg appears to have been substantially injured.

CONAN: Dave Johnson with the call there from Pimlico. An astonished crowd watched as jockey Edgar Prado leaned into Barbaro's shoulder, the colt lurching on three legs, his right hind leg destroyed by a bad step.

His career shattered, the fight for his life began. Barbaro has emerged with a guarded prognosis after six hours of surgery, but with a long precarious road to recovery still ahead.

Andy Beyer is Horseracing Columnist for The Washington Post and the creator of the speed - Beyer Speed Figures you see on the Daily Racing Form. He joins us today from his home in Washington.

Andy, nice to have you back on the program...

Mr. ANDY BEYER (Columnist, The Washington Post): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: ...but sad that it's under such circumstances.

Mr. BEYER: Well, this was - this was as, you know, sad a day at the racetrack as I've spent in my life, and that encompasses a lot of days. Over this - you know, I thought that, you know, unlike a lot of horses who kind of had hyped in recent years that Barbaro was the real thing and that we were really about to see something extraordinary happen at Pimlico.

CONAN: If you have questions about what happened during the race, what it means for thoroughbred racing, give us a call, 800-989-8255; zap us an e-mail, talk@npr.org.

Twenty-eight years since a Triple Crown winner, but about that long since we've seen an injury this bad in a big race on the racetrack. I was there in Belmont Park the day of the great match race of Foolish Pleasure and the brilliant filly Ruffian, who broke down and had to be destroyed the next day.

As you pointed out in your piece, I think it was this morning in the paper, Andy, that left a very sour taste in everybody's mouth who saw it.

Mr. BEYER: Yes, I mean, racing was really riding high at the time in the wake of Secretariat's feats. And, I mean, there was so much interest in that match race and that filly that it just left a bad taste in everyone's mouth.

But, you know, I mean, there are breakdowns often that - or not often, but, you know, the breakdowns, you know, happen in racing, and they are always painful to watch. I mean, I think even the most, you know, jaded race trackers, you know, when the see like just a cheap horse break down in the first race at Charlestown, just avert their eyes because it's so painful to watch.

CONAN: And then, normally, the screen would be pulled out on the track and the horse put down.

Mr. BEYER: That is the usual procedure.

CONAN: The difference with Barbaro is that Barbaro is worth tens of millions of dollars as a stallion, should he survive.

Mr. BEYER: Yes. The surgeon who operated on him, you know, said before the operation that he rarely sees injuries this severe for the simple fact that horses this severely injured are usually euthanized on the track.

You know, and it's - I mean, it's obviously a - you know, it's an ordeal for the horse and, you know, to - trying to save a horse under such extreme circumstances, you know, is very difficult to do and, you know, financially prohibitive for a horse who has no more useful life.

But in the case of a colt with a potentially stellar stud career ahead of him, you know, you had to try everything.

CONAN: It should be pointed out they did try to save Ruffian, as well, but her injuries were too severe. She came out of the anesthetic kicking and then there was no choice but to put her down. And fortunately Barbaro came out of the surgery much better than that, at least according to reports.

Mr. BEYER: Right. But he's not out of the woods. And as you said about Ruffian, you know, the actually surgery is, in most cases, not the issue with saving horses. I mean, veterinarians and doctors know how to repair bones.

It's just that, you know, when, you know, after horses have gone through the surgery, you can't say to a horse, well, you know, lie in bed for six weeks and you'll be okay. I mean, there are, you know, they're high-strung animals. They, you know, they get frightened. You know, they're traumatized.

And, you know, some of them just, you know, can't handle the, you know, the stress and re-injure themselves. I mean, fortunately Barbaro really seems to have, you know, as good a temperament, you know, as a patient as he did as an athlete.

CONAN: We're talking with Andy Beyer of The Washington Post about Barbaro and thoroughbred horse racing. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get a listener on the line. Lee(ph); Lee's calling from Sarasota in Florida.

LEE (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Lee.

LEE: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

LEE: I enjoy your program very much.

CONAN: Thank you.

LEE: My question, frankly, is horses race all the time. And I have to believe that horses make missteps all the time. This seems such a catastrophic injury it's hard to imagine that there wasn't some sort of a pre-existing condition or - it just seems extraordinary that an animal could destroy itself in such a way if it was a healthy animal.

Mr. BEYER: In the, you know, in the Triple Crown series you hear rumors about horses all the time. And, you know, this horse isn't doing well. This horse looks a little lame.

There was - from the day he set foot at Churchill Downs until, you know, the time he set foot on the track at Pimlico, I mean, I never heard a whisper about Barbaro. I mean, the, you know, the people who really know what they're looking at, in terms of, you know, the physical animal, all, you know, said this horse was just, you know, a magnificent specimen.

If - I believe that if there was a pre-existing problem it was one that developed in that when he broke through the gate and, you know, and had to be pulled up and then was returned to the starting gate.

That, you know, that seems to me to be the only plausible scenario for a pre-existing condition. I mean, maybe he hurt himself in those few seconds.

CONAN: Lee, thanks very much.

LEE: Thank you.

CONAN: And here's an e-mail from Janine(ph) in Alexander, Arkansas.

(Reading) "It's my understanding that thoroughbreds have been bred to maximize the length of their legs and thus their stride and thus, obviously, their speed. Their legs are now so long that they have often become too fragile to bear the stress of sprinting and breaks are quite common. These accidents," she writes, "are not acts of God. They're the result of unethical breeding in an inhumane industry."

Mr. BEYER: Well, I mean, thoroughbreds, you know, going back, you know, to almost the start of the species, were, you know, were bred for speed and, you know, and carried their weight on, you know, on spindly little legs.

I think that the, you know, that the issue about horse breeding today is that so many - that horses are bred kind of purely for speed and with kind of no - with no emphasis on durability and stamina.

I mean, all breeders seem to want today is to get, you know, like a quick precocious horse rather than a, you know, the one who's going to have staying power.

Now, having said that, Barbaro was kind of an exception to the normal practice. He was really - he had the superb pedigree, a distance running pedigree, and, you know, by a sire who was very durable. So, you know, I would say Barbaro kind of went against the grain anyway.

CONAN: We just have a minute or so left, but you wrote, we were better off, perhaps, in the era when big stables raised colts to run for their colors, as opposed to primarily for sale, and that when they were racing them themselves, soundness was very important to them. And when they were raising the horses for sale, they're just interested in speed.

Mr. BEYER: Absolutely. I mean, when you look at the horses bred by the Whitneys, the Vanderbilts, and the Phippses, I mean, they bred these horses, you know, to carry their own colors. And, you know, they were interested in kind of the long-term results of the horse.

Nowadays, when most horses are bred by commercial breeders who sell them at auction, you know, their main concern is having a horse who looks good on a catalog page and looks like he's going to be precocious. And those horses don't necessarily last.

But, as I said, you know, Barbaro falls more into the category of the old style horse, in terms of his breeding. And so, I mean, I think his misfortune was just, you know, bad luck.

CONAN: At our website, npr.org, you can see a diagram of Barbaro's repaired leg and an x-ray. There's also a list of other notable injuries to racehorses over the years.

Andy Beyer, as always, thanks very much.

Mr. BEYER: Good talking to you, Neal.

CONAN: Andy Beyer, Horseracing Columnist for The Washington Post, creator of the Beyer Speed Figures that you can see in the Daily Racing Form. He joined us today from his home here in Washington, D.C.

I'm Neal Conan, NPR News.

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Barbaro Makes Progress After Leg Surgery

Jockey Edgar Prado tries to control Barbaro after pulling up. i i

Jockey Edgar Prado tries to control Barbaro after pulling up on the front stretch during the 131st Preakness Stakes, May 20, 2006, at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Jockey Edgar Prado tries to control Barbaro after pulling up.

Jockey Edgar Prado tries to control Barbaro after pulling up on the front stretch during the 131st Preakness Stakes, May 20, 2006, at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. (AP) — Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro is making progress from surgery on his broken leg, even showing an interest in mares, but the colt still faces a long and perilous road to recovery, his surgeon said Monday.

Notable Injuries

Some notable horses who have been injured in major races:

  • Barbaro, 2006 Preakness (survived)
  • Charismatic, 1999 Belmont (survived)
  • Union City, 1993 Preakness
  • Prairie Bayou, 1993 Belmont
  • Go For Wand, 1990 Breeders' Cup Distaff
  • Mr. Nickerson, 1990 Breeders' Cup Sprint
  • Shaker Knit, 1990 Breeders' Cup Sprint
  • Timely Writer, 1982 Jockey Club Gold Cup
  • Ruffian, 1975 match race vs. Foolish Pleasure
  • Black Hills, 1959 Belmont

Source: The Associated Press

Dr. Dean Richardson, who performed the intricate five-hour operation, was satisfied with the result, but blunt about the future for a horse that put together an unbeaten record until he broke down in the Preakness Stakes.

Richardson, who operated on Barbaro at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center for Large Animals on Sunday, said the horse's chances for survival were still 50-50. He said Barbaro was showing positive signs and "acting much more like a 3-year-old colt should act."

Barbaro was trying to bite in his stall and even showing interest in a group of mares who stopped by to visit.

"There's some mares there, and he's extremely interested in the mares," Richardson told ABC's Good Morning America.

Nevertheless, he emphasized that the horse had a long road ahead and would never race again.

"Realistically, it's going to be months before we know if he's going to make it," Richardson told CBS' The Early Show. "We're salvaging him as a breeding animal."

Barbaro's surgery to repair three bones shattered in his right rear leg at the Preakness went about as well as Richardson and trainer Michael Matz hoped. It wasn't long after surgery when Barbaro began to show signs he might make it after all.

After a dip into a large swimming pool before he was awakened — part of New Bolton's renowned recovery system that minimizes injury risk — Barbaro was brought back to his stall, where he should have been calmly resting on all four legs.

Barbaro had other ideas.

"He decided to jump up and down a few times," Richardson said, smiling. "But he didn't hurt anything. That's the only thing that really matters. It had Michael worried."

That's not much to worry about after the agony of the previous 24 hours. Barbaro sustained "life-threatening injuries" Saturday when he broke bones above and below his right rear ankle at the start of the Preakness Stakes.

His surgery began around 1 p.m., but it wasn't until about eight hours later that Richardson and Matz emerged for a news briefing.

"I feel much more relieved after I saw him walk to the stall then when I was loading him in the ambulance to come up here, that's for darn sure," Matz said. "Nobody knew. It was an unknown area going in. I feel much more confident now. At least I feel he has a chance. Last night, I didn't know what was going to go on."

Unbeaten and a serious Triple Crown threat, Barbaro broke down Saturday only a few hundred yards into the 1 3/16th-mile Preakness. The record crowd of 118,402 watched in shock as Barbaro veered sideways, his right leg flaring out grotesquely. Jockey Edgar Prado pulled the powerful colt to a halt, jumped off and awaited medical assistance.

Barbaro sustained a broken cannon bone above the ankle, a broken sesamoid bone behind the ankle and a broken long pastern bone below the ankle. The fetlock joint — the ankle — was dislocated.

Richardson said the pastern bone was shattered in "20-plus pieces."

The bones were put in place to fuse the joint by inserting a plate and 23 screws to repair damage so severe that most horses would not be able to survive it.

Horses are often euthanized after serious leg injuries because circulation problems and deadly disease can arise if they are unable to distribute weight on all fours.

Richardson said he expects Barbaro to remain at the center for several weeks, but "it wouldn't surprise me if he's here much longer than that."

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