Memories of Barbaro, and a doctor's regret 10 years later
BALTIMORE >> The passage of time has trickled ever so slowly for trainer Michael Matz since Barbaro's final gallop at the Preakness.
A decade ago, Matz saddled the frisky Kentucky Derby winner with designs of pulling off an encore at Pimlico Race Course. Soon after emerging from the starting gate, Barbaro stumbled and broke his right hind leg.
Despite the efforts of an esteemed veterinarian, the unrestricted financial backing of the horse's owners and the outpouring of love from racing fans around the world, the injuries Barbaro suffered at the Preakness ultimately led to his death.
For those who knew the whimsical thoroughbred, vivid memories linger.
"When you're looking for another horse like that, it seems like it's been ages," Matz said. "I'm hoping, but I don't have a great deal of confidence I'm going to find it or it's going to find me."
That's because, as Barbaro owner Roy Jackson said, "He was one in a million horse."
Barbaro came into the Preakness unbeaten in six races, but that's not the only reason why Matz loved the dark bay colt.
"Especially this time of year, there are always memories of Barbaro," Matz said. "One minute he wins the Kentucky Derby in front of 160,000 people, and on Monday afternoon he's out in the paddock rolling around in the grass and having a good time. Those are the things that stand out."
After tumbling to the dirt at the Preakness, Barbaro was transported to the New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania's rural Kennett Square campus, where Dr. Dean Richardson performed surgery. Although Barbaro's broken leg healed, he developed laminitis, a painful and often crippling hoof condition, in his left hind leg. Following several more procedures, Barbaro was found to have laminitis in both front legs.
At that point, Richardson, along with owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, realized the horse could not be saved. Barbaro was euthanized on January 29, 2007.
Though Richardson is confident he did everything possible to keep the horse alive, he looks back at the time with no small measure of regret.
"It's not like there have been evolutionary changes in the technology over the last 10 years to repair this type of fracture," Richardson said. "In retrospect, however, there are certainly some subtle things that I would probably do differently today if I were to approach the same type of fracture.
"If you ask me, would I love to have another chance at saving Barbaro, the answer is categorically yes. That's more because I care so much about him, because he's a real special horse."
Barbaro's situation was unusual in that the Jacksons were willing to spend thousands of dollars for veterinary care to keep him alive — and not necessarily because of his potential as a stud.
"It's not that horses can't be repaired, it's just that many times the economics of repairing a horse's injury are not aligned," Richardson said. "You don't have the combination of an owner who has the resources and a horse that justifies that expense."
The Jacksons and Barbaro fit the description.
"He deserved whatever we could do to try to save him," Roy Jackson said. "The stud thing, it didn't matter."
Barbaro's ashes are buried at Churchill Downs, the site of his biggest victory. A bronze statue of the horse stands atop his remains.
"Sometimes I sit on the sideline there, watch people take pictures in front of the statue," Jackson said. "I think it's a great memorial for him."
Barbaro's mother, La Ville Rouge, lives at the stables on the Jacksons' estate in Chester County, Pennsylvania. That, and the love Barbaro received 10 years ago, have helped his owners move on.
"We don't dwell on it much," Roy Jackson said. "We got letters from people in every state and 14 foreign countries. We think back on the huge outpouring of support we got. That's what I think about more than the injury."
Richardson has taken a similar stance.
"The bitterness of losing him lessens over time," he said. "But I've got a picture of Barbaro on my office wall and a painting of him at home. I certainly do still think about him."
Matz has 70 stalls at the Fair Hill Training Center. He hopes to one day fill one of them with a horse capable of competing for the Triple Crown.
"All trainers are looking for that, and I was lucky enough to get one in Barbaro," he said. "The worst part of it is, we never will really know how good he really was."
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