Remembering Barbaro

Remembering Barbaro

Racing colt's heroic struggle to survive defined careers, inspired thousands and shone a light on veterinary care
Mar 01, 2007

Kennett Square, Pa.— Many patients leave caregivers with indelible memories, but none like this one.

Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was one of a kind, and treating him for eight months after his catastrophic injury in last year's Preakness Stakes became a defining moment in the career of his surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson.

Richardson says that in terms of the public and media attention he faced during "a weird confluence of events," Barbaro's case is easily the benchmark of his 28-plus years at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. He is chief surgeon at the school's George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals at New Bolton Center, 35 miles west of Philadelphia.

"I've worked on other horses, fancy horses, I've worked with even worse fractures, and one can get attached to any patient that's with you for a while. But nothing before even approximates this in terms of the spotlight that was on us. It was a unique experience, and I can't imagine that anything like it will occur again," Richardson says.

Barbaro left his mark on many others, too, including thousands who never knew him but were touched by his story.

Based on countless e-mails, letters and telephone calls the school received after Barbaro was put down the morning of Jan. 29, the horse might be considered a role model for courageously dealing with adversity.

And those who cared for him until the end say veterinarians can be grateful for the way he elevated public perception of the profession.

Hospital and school leaders, along with racing-industry officials, describe Barbaro's legacy as one of inspiration, hope and education that far outshines his racetrack accomplishments, even if he had gone on to win the Triple Crown as many of them believe he could have.

After his accident last May, Barbaro made good progress over several months, despite a few setbacks, but serious complications finally set in – particularly a flare-up of laminitis in his left rear hoof and new laminitis in both front hooves, leaving him in pain and unable to stand.

The distress was too much.

On Jan. 29, he was given a heavy tranquilizer and an anesthetic overdose to put him down.

At press time, there still was no official word on a burial site for Barbaro. Last month, Churchill Downs officials said they'd be "honored" to have him buried in a garden outside the Kentucky Derby Museum, not far from his greatest triumph, alongside four other Derby winners.

The fight for life

Dr. Dean Richardson: "My wife and I spent the entire Super Bowl just opening and reading letters."
Today there is wide consensus that Barbaro's long struggle to bounce back from the gruesome fracture in his right hind leg and live out a normal life was heroic and will have long-lasting effects.

"Maybe it (his fight to live) was bigger than the Triple Crown," his trainer, Michael Matz, was quoted as saying.

Few besides his owners are in better position to understand and assess Barbaro's impact on our culture than the staff at Widener hospital. They, like Richardson, have vivid memories of what it was like inside New Bolton during the 254 days Barbaro was a patient.

In interviews with DVM Newsmagazine, Richardson, DVM, Dipl. ACVS; the hospital's executive director, Dr. Corinne Sweeney, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM; and the dean of the veterinary school, Dr. Joan Hendricks, offered insight into the events surrounding Barbaro's passing and the story's far-reaching impact at their institution and beyond.