Ailing Barbaro Recovering from New Operation

Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro had a risky surgical procedure Saturday night. It may be the last chance to save the thoroughbred horse's life as he struggles to recover from his injury in the Preakness.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro has suffered another serious setback in his struggle to recover from the broken leg he suffered in the Preakness Stakes. On Saturday, veterinarians at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center surgically implanted a device at the base of his right hind leg to take weight off an abscess there.

As NPR's Julie Rovner reports, the surgery comes with substantial risk.

JULIE ROVNER: It's been a rocky road for Barbaro since the bay colt became racing sweetheart at Churchill Downs. He survived major surgery on his shattered right hind leg in May only to develop laminitis, a painful and often fatal inflammation in his left hind foot in July, a direct result of standing on that foot while the right leg healed. The laminitis required surgeons to cut away nearly 80 percent of his left hoof. Both legs seemed to heal slowly through the fall, but a few weeks ago, Barbaro began experiencing more pain in his left hind foot, which caused him to put more weight on his right, which in turn developed the abscess. Dean Richardson is Barbaro's surgeon at New Bolton.

Dr. DEAN RICHARDSON (Chief of Surgery, New Bolton Center, University of Pennsylvania): We try to manage it with - initially with a cast then with the brace, and neither one of them was working satisfactorily, which is why we had to go to the much more potentially serious technique.

ROVNER: That serious technique involved a complicated series of pins and plates to take the weight off of his foot and put it on his leg bone instead. One danger of the procedure is that the leg bone could break, says Richardson, particularly because it's the bone that just finished healing.

Dr. RICHARDSON: Plus, we certainly remain very concerned that now - that we're having trouble with both hind legs at the same time. You know, then you have to start worrying about his front feet and he could develop laminitis in both front feet that is serious enough that that would probably be enough to make us call it quits.

ROVNER: Still, Richardson is quick to add that he intends to continue to try to heal Barbaro, who's still potentially a very valuable stallion, as long as he and his owners feel the horse is acceptably comfortable.

Dr. RICHARDSON: Right now, like I said, he's eating and standing there. He's got a bright eye and he looks at you and he's, you know, popping mints and carrots out of your hands. He's not sitting there looking like a perfectly miserable horse.

ROVNER: One of the most amazing things about Barbaro is how good a patient he's been. Through all the procedures and surgeries and being cooped up, considering all his instincts are to get out and run. But one person who's not surprised is Larry Bramlage, an equine orthopedic surgeon from Lexington, Kentucky.

Dr. LARRY BRAMLAGE (Equine Orthopedic Surgeon, Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital): I'm always amazed that some of the best patients learning to adapt to the problems are some of the biggest, toughest colts. They seem to have a survival instinct.

ROVNER: That is something Barbaro is likely to need more of in the coming days and weeks.

Julie Rovner, NPR News.

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