After all they had been through, the decision to euthanize 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro wasn’t made easily.
But Dean Richardson, DVM, chief of surgery at University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s Widener Hospital at New Bolton Center, knew the time had come. “We said all along that our decision would be based on whether quality of life was acceptable and whether we had any reasonable prospect of getting him to live a reasonably acceptable life,” Dr. Richardson said.
For the first time since Barbaro shattered his right hind leg at the Preakness Stakes in May and through the complications that followed, Barbaro had been uncomfortable the night before, Richardson said. He was unable to sleep and clearly distressed.
“He was a completely different horse,” Richardson said.
“We meant it when we said if we couldn’t control his discomfort, we wouldn’t go on.”
Barbaro was euthanized at 10:30 a.m. Jan. 29 with Richardson and owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson by his side.
Barbaro’s fractures had completely healed, Richardson said. But a deep bruise on that leg resulted in an abscess. Foundering severely in his back left leg and with laminitis in both his front feet, keeping him comfortable became problematic.
But the experience hasn’t been for naught, Richardson said.
“If a horse with the same injuries came in tomorrow, we would have a better chance of saving him,” Richardson told a news conference. “It’s the way science works, the way medicine works. We expect to get better at what we do.”
Paving the Way
“If you look at some of the old textbooks on orthopedic repair in horses, most of them would say this fracture could not be repaired,” said Kimberly May, DVM, an equine veterinarian who was not involved directly with Barbaro’s care and a medical and science writer at the American Veterinary Medical Assn.
“If you went by the old textbooks, they would have said no, let’s put him down, let’s not even try,” she said. “But they tried and [the fracture] actually healed. It proved we can do that. That is a huge step in the right direction … for veterinary science.”
Although Dr. May couldn’t comment on the specifics, she said that those involved in Barbaro’s care probably learned a lot about laminitis.
“There are very few veterinarians who have been given the opportunity to go that far [in treating laminitis],” she said, adding that money is frequently a major limiting factor in continuing an animal’s treatment.
“They were able to treat him as aggressively as possible. They were able to try new things and not weigh financial decisions.”
Veterinarians also learned that sometimes no matter what you do, they can’t all be saved, May said.
Some people may wonder if his outcome was expected from the beginning. Yes and no, May said.
“The entire veterinarian community was taking the same tack Dr. Richardson was,” she said. “[We were hopefully optimistic], saying every day we get is a good day, but in the back of your head you know all of the things that can happen. Everyone was saddened by his loss, but it was not a shock.”
May compared Barbaro to a baseball legend, saying that public recognition of his condition can help raise awareness.
“I see him almost as a horse version of Lou Gehrig,” May said. “This horse died from a disease that has been around for quite awhile, but maybe didn’t get the national attention that it deserved until a prominent figure was affected by it and the nation became emotionally involved.
“Even after death, Barbaro is going to champion laminitis and orthopedic research. [Barbaro] is going to help a lot of horses because of the notoriety he brought to it. If that really happens it’s going to be an amazing legacy for him.”
In Memory of Barbaro
Gretchen Jackson also hopes to keep Barbaro’s memory alive.
“Grief is the price we all pay for love,” she said. “I hope we can turn our love into an energy that supports horses throughout the world.”
Funds in memory of Barbaro have been established to do just this.
The National Thoroughbred Racing Assn. has created a Barbaro Memorial Fund to raise awareness and money for equine health and safety research, with a specific target toward research projects that focus on laminitis.
The NTRA will organize fundraising initiatives at major racing events and venues in the spring and summer, including the lead-up to the Triple Crown series, the Triple Crown events and other major races during the summer.
The NTRA will use merchandise sales, television time, its Internet site and other communications to support the effort.
“The outpouring of emotion and support from racing fans has been so amazing that we wanted to find a fitting way for those fans and our industry to honor Barbaro,” said Alex Waldrop, chief executive officer of the NTRA.
“We consulted with the Jacksons and other industry organizations to see how we could bring our combined resources to bear in this endeavor. We anticipate a busy few months as we work together to assist projects that can have a great impact on the health and safety of Thoroughbreds and, through our focus on laminitis, horses of other breeds as well.”
The University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine also has established funds that veterinarians and horse lovers may donate to. The Barbaro Fund, which now exceeds $1.2 million, supports ongoing patient care and expansion of the George D. Widener Large Animal Hospital. The Friends of New Bolton Center fund provides unrestricted support for New Bolton Center. The Laminitis
Research fund supports new and ongoing research at the veterinary school in the field of laminitis.
Many people have asked why Barbaro was so popular.
“This horse was loved because he was a great athlete and people love greatness,” Richardson said. “His was a story of bravery.”