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Kentucky Derby Winner Barbaro Breaks Hind Leg in Preakness

May 22, 2006 at 12:55 PM EDT

ANNOUNCER: And they’re off!

JEFFREY BROWN: Just seconds after the horses sprinted out of the gate, the odds-on favorite for winning the Preakness Stakes shattered his right rear ankle.

ANNOUNCER: … he is out of the race and out of the Triple Crown.

JEFFREY BROWN: As more than 100,000 fans watched at the Pimlico race track in Baltimore, Barbaro suffered an injury that ended his racing career and could lead to the loss of his life.

JEANINE EDWARDS, ESPN Equestrian Correspondent: The excitement and the roar of the crowd when the horses go in the gate, it’s like nothing you will experience, but it quickly turned to deafening gasps of disbelief and then just utter silence.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jockey Edgar Prado and owner Gretchen Jackson consoled each other as Barbaro was taken to Pennsylvania in an ambulance.

ANNOUNCER: Barbaro comes up on the outside, and he takes the lead!

JEFFREY BROWN: Just two weeks ago, Barbaro burst onto the national sports scene with an overwhelming victory at the Kentucky Derby.

ANNOUNCER: … he runs away from them all…

Four-hour surgery

JEFFREY BROWN: He was pegged as one of the best horses to come to the sport in a quarter-century, with a legitimate chance to sweep the Triple Crown, racing's ultimate prize, which has not been done since 1978.

Yesterday, after Barbaro was stabilized, doctors at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, a top animal hospital, performed a five-hour surgery. They used a metal plate and 23 screws to fuse the ankle before putting it in a cast.

Dr. Dean Richardson, the chief surgeon, told reporters afterwards that there was no indication of previous injury and said it was just a bad step. He put the colt's chance of survival at 50-50.

DR. DEAN RICHARDSON, Chief of Surgery, New Bolton Veterinary Clinic: You're talking about a 1,200-to-1,300 pound horse bearing weight on basically pieces of stainless steel that are put in to hold his bones together, and that's not a sure thing. Nothing is absolutely assured that everything will hold and that the fracture will heal adequately.

Barbaro's speed and stamina

JEFFREY BROWN: This afternoon, at least, doctors were upbeat and said Barbaro was acting, quote, "bright and appropriately frisky."

And for more, I'm joined by Andrew Beyer, a sports columnist for the Washington Post. He's written four books on racing. And veterinarian Dr. Celeste Kunz, former chief examining veterinarian for the New York Racing Association.

Welcome to both of you.

ANDREW BEYER, Washington Post: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Andy Beyer, an injured horse is suddenly on the front page. What makes this such a big deal?

ANDREW BEYER: You know, in the last few years, we've had a lot of horses going for the Triple Crown who've been over-hyped perhaps, but Barbaro was the real thing.

This was a horse who had speed and stamina. He was a great runner on both dirt and grass. He'd won the Kentucky Derby by the biggest margin in a half a century. I thought he was going to not only win the Triple Crown, but go on to feats that were unprecedented in the history of the sport.

And to see that horse on national television trying to retain his balance on three legs was such a wrenching sight that, I mean, obviously, you know, it touched a nation, but, I mean, and even I think the most hard-core gamblers in the grandstand were equally moved, absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even they felt it, yes.

Dr. Kunz, a lot of people are left wondering why a broken leg, which is routine for humans, would be life-threatening for a horse? What's the answer?

DR. CELESTE KUNZ, Equine Veterinarian: Well, the physiology of the horse is completely different. It's imperative that they use all four legs, because their gastrointestinal system and their circulation is dependent on that. It's tied together. So, after the surgery, it was very, very important that Barbaro be able to rise and use all four legs, which he did.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in the race itself, these horses -- I mean, I gather an ankle is called upon to support an incredible amount of weight, I guess, and at very high speeds?

DR. CELESTE KUNZ: Fortunately, he was able to run a little bit after he sustained the fracture. I was watching my television; I could see the distortion above and below the ankle, so, from my years as a track veterinarian, I knew he'd broke at least those two bones.

I think it's a testament to the skill of Edward Prado to pull him up so well, and the track veterinarians to reduce the fracture at the scene, that he was able to go and take the next step. You know, they were able to keep enough raw materials for Dr. Richardson to perform the surgery.

Barbaro's value

JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Kunz, give us some idea of the changes in medical technology for treating something like this. I mean, I noticed some very interesting pictures of the pool of monorails, of treadmills that all look very surprising for a treatment of horses.

DR. CELESTE KUNZ: We've come a long way. The picture that we saw of Barbaro rising from the pool, he went right from the operating table into what was basically a wet suit in a raft.

And when he started recovering, he would move his legs against the resistance of water, instead of hitting ground or anything else, or each other. And then he was lifted up by hoist in a sling and moved over to a recovery stall where he lightly touched his feet on the ground, and then slowly but surely they allowed him to put more pressure.

And I was in a surgery at New Bolton Center a month ago very similar to this, and they've really perfected it. And this is one of the greatest recovery systems for this kind of catastrophic injury.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Andy Beyer, is it correct that most horses in this situation would have been put to death?

ANDREW BEYER: Yes. The veterinarian who was involved in the operation said before the surgery that he doesn't see injuries this catastrophic very often because such horses are almost automatically just euthanized on the track. It's such a difficult task to save them, and there's kind of no economic or practical value left for the horse. But Barbaro is obviously a potentially very valuable animal.

Economics as a consideration

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell us about that. I mean, the brutal truth here is that economics plays as much a role as the medical science.

ANDREW BEYER: Oh, absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: So tell us about the equation.

ANDREW BEYER: Well, for a $5,000 horse, you're not going to have a motorcade, you know, to the University of Pennsylvania and an incredibly expensive and complicated procedure. But Barbaro's potential value is enormous.

I mean, if he survives to go to stud, an expert told me today his stud fee will probably start at $100,000 per mating. If he becomes as good as people hope, it could go, you know, as high as a half a million. He could be bred to 100 mares a year.

So those are huge numbers. And, obviously, there was an enormous economic incentive to try to save him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Dr. Kunz, as we heard, the doctors were pleased with the way things went yesterday, but still left it at no better than 50-50. So what do they look for? What happens over the next days and weeks?

DR. CELESTE KUNZ: Well, we're going to be monitoring him very closely. Infection is the biggest complication we're faced with. There's a lot of hardware in there.

And the circulation has been altered, so we're going to be watching for infection. He is on some good pharmaceuticals to combat that. We're going to look at his temperament. We want to see him walking around in the stall bearing weight on all four. He'll be getting down, and he'll be rising. And we want him to be nickering at mares like he apparently was.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Andy Beyer, finally, what kind of blow is this for the sport itself?

ANDREW BEYER: I think it's a bad blow. You know, the last time something like this happened in the public view that was so devastating was 1975, when the filly Ruffian broke down at Belmont Bark. And I think it just turned a lot of people off horse racing who had been attracted to it, you know, by her charisma.

And I just fear that people who saw what happened to Barbaro on the track at Pimlico are not going to be in a real hurry to go out to a racetrack very soon.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me just say to our audience that those pictures we were showing -- I think it was clear, but that was not Barbaro. Those were other horses that were illustrative.

Andy Beyer and Dr. Celeste Kunz, thank you both very much.