Barbaro Is Struggling, May Not Survive

The racehorse Barbaro is near death. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

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Kentucky Derby Winner Barbaro, who broke his leg in the Preakness, has developed a complication his veterinarians fear most, and the one that could prompt a decision to put him down.

NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

Dean Richardson, Barbaro's surgeon, uttered the words everyone's been dreading at a news conference this morning.

Dr. DEAN RICHARDSON (Chief of Surgery, New Bolton Center, University of Pennsylvania): The horse has suffered an acute, rather severe bought of laminitis in his left hind foot.

ROVNER: That's the foot opposite the one that was injured. Laminitis is a painful inflammation in which the horse's hoof literally separates from the bone. It's like having your toenail pulled out, then being asked to stand on the tip of that toe.

Laminitis often occurs when a horse puts too much weight on one foot, in this case, because Barbaro was uncomfortable on his broken right hind leg, which had developed an infection last week.

To treat the laminitis, Richardson had to remove about 80 percent of Barbaro's left hoof, so now he has casts on both hind legs. Richardson conceded at today's news conference at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center that the complication has significantly reduced Barbaro's odds of recovery.

Dr. RICHARDSON: I'd be lying if I said anything other than poor. It's very guarded at this point.

ROVNER: Still, Richardson said, what's making the decision about whether to euthanize Barbaro so difficult for his owners is that aside from the obvious problems, the horse appears alert and relatively comfortable.

Dr. RICHARDSON: The reality is that when you come in and see this horse every day, he nickers to you, he's still eating well, he has excellent GI function, he is capable of walking around the stall.

ROVNER: While Barbaro's racing career clearly ended on the track at Pimlico in May, his owners had hoped to salvage his future as a breeding stallion. But the severity of the broken right leg was only one of the challenges. Dr. Larry Bramlage, an equine orthopedic surgeon in Lexington, Kentucky, says the bigger problem is the way horses are put together.

Dr. LARRY BRAMLAGE (Equine Orthopedic Surgeon): If you were going to design a poor orthopedics patient, it would look something like a horse.

ROVNER: The biggest problem being the fact that a horse has to be able to bear weight on all four feet in order for its circulatory system to function correctly.

Dr. BRAMLAGE: It would be sort of like after you broke your leg, then they would ask you that you had to walk immediately and you had to carry four or five people on your back while you're healing. And you have to get all this done in a matter of six to eight weeks before your other leg fatigues and you don't have the opportunity to heal.

ROVNER: Which, of course is what's happened to Barbaro. Veterinarian Dean Richardson said that he and Barbaro's owners and trainer will continue to hope for the best, but that they won't let him suffer.

Dr. RICHARDSON: We are only going to go on in this horse as long as everyone involved is convinced that they can come in every day, look at this horse, and be convinced that on that day and the next day that he's going to be acceptably comfortable.

ROVNER: Julie Rovner, NPR News.

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