Barbaro’s condition improves, remaining stable

Published 1:11 am Sunday, July 16, 2006

Barbaro is holding his own, for now.

Following a week in which it appeared the ailing Kentucky Derby winner might not live much longer, Barbaro remained in stable condition Saturday while being treated for a painful and often-fatal foot disease.

“His heart rate and pulse are normal, and his appetite is good,” Dr. Dean Richardson said Saturday in a statement issued by the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center. “He continues to respond well, looks good and has a positive attitude.”

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Encouraging news, for sure. But at this tense point, there is really no way to predict what lies ahead for Barbaro. More good days and improved prospects for recovery? Or future complications that could make it too painful for the colt to be kept alive?

Barbaro has dreaded laminitis in his “good” left hind leg. On Wednesday, veterinarians performed a procedure to remove 80 percent of the hoof wall to combat the disease, usually caused by uneven weight distribution in the limbs. The disease could appear in another limb at any time, and if it does, it would likely result in the horse being humanely destroyed.

“If he were to develop it in another foot, we will not continue,” Richardson said during a news conference Thursday.

The right hind leg was shattered a few yards out of the starting gate at the Preakness Stakes on May 20, and no less than three surgical procedures and four cast changes have taken place since. The titanium plate and 27 screws inserted in the leg on May 21 were replaced with new hardware last Saturday. An infection was cleaned out, and the pastern (ankle) joint vets are trying to fuse was a concern.

“We continue to monitor him very closely, and we are keeping him as comfortable as possible,” Richardson said.

Barbaro, who has fiberglass casts on both hind legs, has been fitted with a sling as he stands in his stall in the intensive care unit at the George D. Widener Hospital. It prevents sudden movements and allows the colt to shift his weight off the injured limbs.

While being treated aggressively with pain medication, including epidurals, the biggest concern involves Barbaro’s comfort. From the time the decision was made to try to save Barbaro after his breakdown, owners Gretchen and Roy Jackson have been adamant that they don’t want him to suffer.

“Their only concern is the horse’s comfort,” Richardson said. “We are only going to go on in this horse as long as everyone involved is convinced that they can come in every day, look at this horse and be convinced that on that day and the next day that he is going to be acceptably comfortable.”

A second straight upbeat report prompted another outpouring of sentiment from Barbaro fans. Dozens of fruit baskets and flower arrangements — one with roses, carnations and daisies in the shape of a horseshoe — began arriving Friday afternoon and continued Saturday.

However, Barbaro still has many months of recovery ahead.

After calling Barbaro’s laminitis “as bad as it gets,” Richardson said Thursday that Barbaro’s chances of survival were poor. A severe case of laminitis usually causes rapid deterioration in a horse’s condition, with the end result making it too painful for the animal to be kept alive.

Since Barbaro’s vital signs are good and his condition has stabilized for two days, there is a glimmer of hope.

“When a horse is like this they have tendency to start going downhill very quickly,” Dr. Rick Arthur, a prominent veterinarian on the California thoroughbred circuit, said. “If they level off at all, I think we always get very encouraged.”

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas calls Barbaro’s situation “very shaky.” The Hall of Famer won the 1999 Derby and Preakness with Charismatic, who broke his left front leg near the finish of the Belmont Stakes in his Triple Crown bid. The career-ending injury was not as serious as Barbaro’s, and Charismatic recovered without developing laminitis.

“Laminitis was always the issue,” Lukas said from Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. “Those of us that have been there, done that, seen it, always knew. Dr. Richardson knew that’s what he was ultimately going to be fighting. When that set in that was a major, major setback. Laminitis has always been the one that does most of those horses in.”