Notebook > Sports

Breaking the stops to fix Barbaro

Sports | Why are leg injuries so dangerous in horses? Humans with leg injuries can heal while in traction

Issue: "Houses divided," June 3, 2006

Barbaro's Triple Crown quest ended in a tragically short way when the Kentucky Derby winner pulled up lame just 100 yards into the Triple Crown's second leg, the Preakness Stakes. Barbaro's jockey, Edgar Prado, reported the horse seemed confident as it pulled into the starting gate. Moments later an ominous green curtain surrounded the champion horse on the track while stunned racing fans wondered if Barbaro would even emerge alive.

The champion horse suffered a catastrophic leg injury on the opening stretch. In medical terms: Barbaro broke three crucial bones below and above the ankle in his left rear leg. One bone below the ankle was shattered into more than 20 pieces. "It's about as bad as it could be," said veterinarian Dean Richardson, who operated on the horse at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center for Large Animals. "You do not see this severe injury frequently because the fact is most horses that suffer this typically are put down on the race track." Considering Barbaro's status as a champion colt, doctors operated for hours to try to save the horse's future as a studding stallion. "This is rare," he said.

Why are leg injuries so dangerous in horses? Humans with leg injuries can heal while in traction-not the case for horses. Many horses are put down with less serious leg injuries because broken bones can keep horses from standing, which leads to circulation problems and even diseases-such as laminitis-resulting from the inability to stand upright. In Barbaro's case, veterinarians operated for five hours to try to fuse bones in the champion horse's leg and create a cast that would both stabilize Barbaro's leg and allow him to stand on all fours.

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After the operation, doctors reported that the horse could stand on all fours, but still only had a 50-50 chance of survival. It all depends on how the horse reacts to the cast. Despite his injuries, said hospital veterinarian Corrine Sweeney, the horse's mind was elsewhere: "He also showed appropriate interest in the mares, which means he's acting like a young colt should."

Around the Horn

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