ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was euthanized today. Veterinarians at the University of Pennsylvania had been struggling to save the four-year-old colt's life since he shattered his right hind leg just moments into the Preakness last May.
NPR's Julie Rovner has this appreciation.
JULIE ROVNER: It's been 29 years since a horse has won racing's Triple Crown, the trio consisting of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. And while many three-year-olds have come in to the first Saturday in May with compelling stories, Barbaro's was right up there. Although the striking bay colt had only been raced lightly, he'd won all five of his starts.
Gaining nearly as much attention as Barbaro was his trainer, Michael Matz. Before turning to thoroughbred racing full time seven years ago, Matz was a champion show jumper, riding at three Olympic games and winning a team silver medal in 1996. He was also briefly famous as a hero after he ran back into a burning United Airlines DC-10 and rescued three children after a crash in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989.
Feel good story aside, Barbaro didn't actually go off as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, but he quickly put doubts to rest with one of the most dominating performances in years.
(Soundbite of Kentucky Derby)
Unidentified Announcer: And down this actually come in the Kentucky Derby. And Barbaro is running away. It's Edgar Prado aboard, and Barbaro is going to win this derby quite quickly.
ROVNER: Two weeks later, Barbaro did go off as the favorite at the Preakness in Baltimore. But just strides into the race, disaster struck.
(Soundbite of Preakness Stakes)
Unidentified Man #2: An astonishing development here. Barbaro is being 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.
ROVNER: Barbaro in fact had broken three different bones in that leg. And his pastern joint, the one just above the hoof, basically exploded. Most horses with such a severe injury would have been put down on the spot. But Barbaro's owners opted to send him to the University of Pennsylvania's new Bolton Center in hopes of healing the leg enough to allow him to breed. There, in a six-hour surgery, the injured leg was literally pieced back together with titanium plates and two dozen screws.
For several weeks, the news was good. The daily deliveries of cards, flowers, posters and baskets of carrots and apples from well wishers were starting to trickle off as Barbaro settled into what his owners and doctors hoped would be a long and an eventful recovery. But in mid-July, Barbaro's injured leg got infected, requiring three operations in a week. Then came the complication Dean Richardson, Barbaro's lead veterinarian, dreaded most.
Dr. DEAN RICHARDSON (University of Pennsylvania New Bolton Center): The horse has suffered an acute severe bout of laminitis in his left hind foot.
ROVNER: That's the one opposite the injured one. Laminitis is a severe and often fatal inflammation where the horse's hoof, equivalent to a person's fingernail, literally separates from the bone. It often occurs when a horse puts too much weight on one foot, in this case to avoid standing on the infected right leg.
Larry Bramlage is an equine surgeon in Lexington, Kentucky. He says it's not uncommon for such a devastating complication to show up after so many weeks. He says a horse with a broken leg is on a very short timetable.
Dr. LARRY BRAMLAGE (Equine Surgeon, Lexington, Kentucky): If the fracture is not able to be a weight bearing limb and take its share of the load, by six to eight weeks, you always have to worry about the other foot.
ROVNER: The laminitis did heal for several months. But in the end, it was the sheer magnitude of the physical injury that did Barbaro in. Bramlage says that's not uncommon either.
Dr. BRAMLAGE: They're terrific companions. They're very, very well built for the things that they do, but they're medical nightmares.
ROVNER: So now, Barbaro will be remembered not for what he did, but for what he might have done. Much like Ruffian, the gallant undefeated Philly who broke down in a match race in 1975 and was euthanized the next day. Joan Hendrix is dean of the University of Pennsylvania's vet school. She said the outpouring of emotion for Barbaro was like nothing she'd seen since Ruffian.
Ms. JOAN HENDRIX (University of Pennsylvania): This wasn't just our animal-living, pet-loving public. This was the general public, a different level of feeling about how connecting to animals is somehow healing for all of us.
ROVNER: But while many will be sad, Barbaro's owners and fans still have something to look forward to. A full brother was born last spring in Kentucky and could well make his racing debut next year.
Julie Rovner, NPR News.