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Barbaro's Legacy

The effort to save the fallen champion shows how far equine medicine has come in recent years. And how far it still has to go

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On a shelf in a nurse's room at the New Bolton Center is a framed photograph of the chief of large-animal surgery. Scrawled beneath is a caption: "He is as blunt as his crew cut." Dean W. Richardson, who is 53, can be intimidating—but is "a marshmallow" inside, Dreyfuss said. He can be hard—on himself as much as anyone. And his fan base among his peers is sizable. Midge Leitch, who supervised Richardson when he was a surgical intern at New Bolton, said he gives great speeches off the cuff, loves tools and loves solving the puzzles of surgery on massive animals.

Shortly before he performed a recent arthroscopic operation, Richardson entered a small conference room at New Bolton and tossed a hefty stack of mail on a table. "This is what I get," he said. Americans had been thanking him, offering home remedies and, in rare instances, urging him to euthanize Barbaro. He found the last sentiment odd: "Their knee-jerk reaction to any animal that's uncomfortable is to think they're doing them a favor by killing them."

If an injured animal can be helped to a life of quality and comfort, he said, "then I think going through a period of pain is something most of us, if we had our choice, we'd elect to go through." This is not the old era. Surgeons can do much more. "A situation like this, you get slapped in the face that people really don't know that we fix horses' broken legs on a pretty regular basis."

Not all broken legs. As much as anything, the decision usually comes down to money. Does an owner have thousands of dollars for surgery and recovery? Does the horse have value, economically and emotionally? Such judgments are intensely personal, not only with a horse but with anything. Some of us use our money to buy art, some to buy football season tickets, some to give to charity, some to save our dog or cat. Or horse.

In the Jacksons' case, Richardson said, "money's just not a limiting issue." Roy, a descendant of the Rockefellers, is a former owner of two minor-league baseball teams and a former president of three minor leagues, and Barbaro had just won $2 million at the Derby. And, Richardson said, "they love the horse. They truly love the horse."

The goal of Barbaro's surgery was not to enable him to compete again. His racing career was over. But if the leg could be rebuilt, he might pass happy days strolling pastures and producing little Barbaros. To reproduce, a stallion must be able to stand on his hind legs and mount a mare; artificial means are not allowed in Thoroughbred racing. Stud fees for a champion like Barbaro would be huge. But Gretchen Jackson's reasons seem simpler. She just wanted him to be a horse again, at least as much as possible. Barbaro had done a marvelous thing, won the Derby. He deserved a chance to live on, as long as his pain and discomfort during the rehabilitation effort did not become intolerable.

On Sunday, May 21, the day after the Preakness, a surgical team assembled in a New Bolton operating room. Richardson said he made no pep talk and laid out no plan. He knew what he would do. The surgery would not be groundbreaking; it would merely be immensely challenging.

Any operation to fix a horse's leg is more complex than fixing a human's. For one thing, horses are anesthetized while standing and promptly collapse, leaving a massive, limp animal to be moved around operating and recovery rooms. At New Bolton, slings suspended from ceiling monorails do the job.

Then, as anesthesia starts to wear off after surgery, a fearful or disoriented horse might flail his legs, striking the floor or walls and destroying the very repairs that have just been made. That is what happened to Ruffian in 1975. At New Bolton, a horse can awaken on a raft in a heated pool, his legs dangling below in glove-like rubber sleeves. If he flails, he hits nothing but warm water. Finally, after a horse is awake and calm, he cannot be put to bed while the leg heals. Lying for long periods hampers breathing, digestion and other functions. Very quickly, a horse must be able to do what seems counterintuitive: stand and put weight on a repaired limb.

In Barbaro's case, that would seem almost miraculous. Liberty Getman, a surgical resident who assisted Richardson in the operating room, said she was stunned that morning to see the X-rays. "I don't know that I've ever seen a leg look like that that anyone has thought of repairing. It was much worse than I had hoped."


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