Barbaro legacy goes beyond being a Derby winner

Jockey Edgar Prado pulled up Barbaro shortly after the Preakness started on May 20, 2006.
Jockey Edgar Prado pulled up Barbaro shortly after the Preakness started on May 20, 2006. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

If things had been different, if there had been no bad step in the 2006 Preakness, this is the year that we might have been listening for the hoofbeats from Barbaro's progeny, following their father's footsteps at the Kentucky Derby.

There are no little Barbaros, but his imprint is all over Churchill Downs.

And every other racetrack that keeps track of on-track injuries. And every state that bans steroids. And every push to make the sport of horse racing safer.

The horse that captured hearts with his seven-length Derby win five years ago left an unprecedented trail of tears after he suffered a catastrophic injury early in the second leg of the Triple Crown.

Although surgeons and veterinarians were able to repair his broken right hind leg, Barbaro, like so many other horses, succumbed to laminitis eight months later.

Barbaro's legacy has been unparalleled in what he's done for the sport, not in bloodlines but in better treatment at the track and in the surge of research into the dreaded disease that is the second most common killer of all horses.

Laminitis is the excruciating degeneration of the tissue between the foot and the hoof wall. In extreme cases, the foot simply collapses.

"There's certainly been a lot of new knowledge generated, and someday, I believe, we'll be able to prevent and successfully treat more cases," said Dr. Dean Richardson, the surgeon who treated Barbaro. "But there's not going to be a quick cure for a complicated disease."

Richardson said much of the work of the past five years has been on figuring out the mechanisms of the disease, which takes various forms from the weight-bearing kind Barbaro developed to the age-related form suffered by many older horses.

And Richardson sees Barbaro's influence in how the industry is still reshaping itself. That's a lot for one horse.

"His greatest legacy is simply awareness ... awareness of a disease that scares vets and owners more than any other," said Peggy Hendershot, spokeswoman for National Thoroughbred Racing Association Charities, which administers the NTRA's Barbaro Fund, which has received support from Pfizer Animal Health.

Most horse owners know of laminitis, which is sometimes called "founder," but it probably wasn't well-known among the general public.

Barbaro changed that. After he was rushed from Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore to the New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school, Richardson was frank that the horse's chances were slim and that even if he could overcome the injury, the threat of laminitis remained.

Money started pouring in virtually from the minute Barbaro was injured and taken to New Bolton, which has a separate Barbaro Fund.

Two days after Barbaro got to the center's George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals, an anonymous donor gave $500,000. Since then, about $7.5 million has been given or pledged in 4,100 donations, large and small. And it still comes in.

"It's amazing," said Jane Simone, New Bolton's director of development. "One of the things worth pointing out is so many of the gifts were from people who didn't own horses, who didn't live in the horse world but who were moved by his story and wanted to do something in his name."

Some of the money, the Barbaro Gift Fund, is spent on providing for the day-to-day needs of patients at the hospital; some will go to refurbish the 50-year-old facility.

A $3 million gift from Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, will go to endow a professorship for researching equine diseases.

A lot of the money from the New Bolton fund and from the NTRA's Barbaro fund has gone and will continue to go into laminitis research.

The NTRA fund has dispersed more than $444,000 to 10 equine research projects, again mostly centered on laminitis.

Scientists and vets all over the globe are working on the problem, but "laminitis isn't cured yet," Hendershot said.

"We know there are a wide range of causes, but what we don't know is, 'What is the trigger?' and 'Once it gets started, how do you stop it?'" Simone said. "We know how to slow it, but it often comes back. These are mysteries that have to be unraveled."

But they are trying. University of Pennsylvania researchers at the Laminitis Institute have set a goal of finding a cure by 2020. If they can't find a cure, they hope to at least be much closer to some answers.

Racing also can credit Barbaro, along with Eight Belles, who broke both front legs just after finishing second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, with forcing the industry to confront some major problems.

There had been previous calls to fix racing's ills, but Hendershot said "readiness" made the difference, finally.

"I think you had a confluence of events and circumstances," she said. "There is much greater awareness of animal welfare within our sport and externally. People are very concerned and careful about animals now than they were five years ago."

That prompted the racing industry to form the NTRA's Safety and Integrity Alliance, which certifies that tracks meet specific standards in racetrack quality.

And tracks must participate in the database of on-track equine injuries and fatalities, something that didn't exist before Barbaro and Eight Belles.

"What does it take to ensure the horse leaves the gate safely and arrives home safely?" Hendershot said. "I think people are far more safety-conscious now."

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