That does not mean a bone will break. It means the risk of injury is higher. After examining sample tissue from racehorses that died or were euthanized after leg fractures, Stover's laboratory found that more than 90 percent had preexisting bone damage. Nor are fatalities the only threat, she said. Imagine a stable of 50 horses that race regularly. In three months, there might still be 50 horses, but a fifth will no longer be competing. Age or illness will have taken some, but muscular-skeletal injury will have sidelined the rest, at least temporarily. "It's huge, it's huge attrition," Stover said.
Nobody, certainly not a family on a Sunday outing, wants to see a mercy killing on the track. Nobody wants to lose a prized investment, either. Racing is a $10.7 billion-a-year business that employs 146,000 people, according to a 2005 study done for the American Horse Council. So there are reasons both humane and economic to reduce track fatalities, which average more than one a day in the United States and Canada.
One idea is to replace dirt track surfaces with more forgiving, man-made materials. The California Horse Racing Board, in fact, has ordered major Thoroughbred tracks in its state to switch to synthetic surfaces by January 1, 2008. But a dream solution involves finding an early-warning system. Researchers believe markers in the blood can telegraph whether a horse is experiencing risky bone damage, says McIlwraith of Colorado State. If so, the animal could be held out of training or competition until it heals. "We're not quite there yet," McIlwraith said, "but we're getting there."
No evidence exists that Barbaro had underlying bone damage. In fact, Matz, his trainer, was criticized before the Kentucky Derby for not running him enough to have him in top form. That complaint evaporated after Barbaro won by six and a half lengths, the biggest margin in 60 years.
Perhaps in the Preakness he did nothing more than take "a bad step," the phrase often heard after a horse breaks a leg. Or perhaps an incident that occurred just before the bell was a factor. Barbaro burst through his gate and had to be checked before being led back to his post position. No injury was found, but that doesn't guarantee that nothing was wrong. We might never know why, moments later, the skeletal structure of his lower leg failed massively.
After seeing the images in Stall 40, Dreyfuss told Matz and the Jacksons, who had gathered just outside, that the leg was "bad." Then he returned to Barbaro, ducked beneath him and took off the Kimzey splint. He unwound Barbaro's rundown bandage, the white legging horses wear as protection against abrasions. There was more that Dreyfuss needed to know.
Running his hands up and down the leg, he checked to see if bone splinters had pierced the skin. Incredibly, none had—a small piece of luck. An open wound would have meant that dirt and germs from the track were inside, creating a grave risk of infection. Then Dreyfuss checked circulation near the hoof. Without good blood flow to promote healing, the future would be very bleak. "I could feel a pulse," he said. Another good sign.
The doctor never considered putting Barbaro down. Nobody did. This was the Derby champion. And Dreyfuss knew the Jacksons by reputation as owners who cared. "I knew we were going to try to save this horse," Dreyfuss said. "No matter what."
He knew who would do the saving too.
Barbaro had been hurt only 82 miles from one of the best large-animal hospitals in the country, and from the very surgeon who had pioneered the use of a surgical device that would be central to Barbaro's salvation. Some 90 minutes after the Preakness, the horse was secured inside a trailer heading northeast to Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.