Saving Barbaro

Veterinary experts poured from all corners of Pimlico to aid an American inspiration
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Jul 01, 2006


Barbaro is lowered into a pool recovery system that helps protect orthopedic repairs while waking up from anesthesia.
From the time his experienced jockey, Edgar Prado, gently pulled him up and kept him quiet while veterinary assistance arrived until this very day, Barbaro's new battle has been one of a convergence of fate, veterinary excellence and most of all, teamwork.

"I would call Prado, the first responder," says Scott Palmer, VMD, Dipl. AVBP, proprietor of New Jersey Equine Clinic. He was at Pimlico as a spectator, but he soon joined the huddle on the track. "He managed that horse as good as anyone could. He did a great job in controlling him."

It was important, too, that Pimlico had an excellent horse ambulance and crew. Barbaro was well cared for by them and the emergency veterinary crew at the racetrack, Palmer says. The ambulance floor lowered hydraulically so the horse didn't need to go up a ramp, and its squeeze-chute allowed the horse to be supported in the stall.


Dr. Dean Richardson examines Barbaro's leg the day after his surgery.
"Years ago, you might have had to load him in a horse trailer, which might have risked further injury," Palmer says.

Once back at his stall, a digital X-ray machine was set up, so the horse didn't have to move again to be filmed. On physical exam, they assessed the skin to see that it was intact, and indeed it was, which was hopeful. The use of digital radiography sped up the diagnostic process considerably and allowed for immediate interpretation of the films. The fractures were diagnosed in minutes.

"He had shattered his pastern, but it was quite surprising to see he had the condylar fracture of the cannon bone, as well. With those two things, we were trying to think of the way we were going to get the fracture together because the word 'euthanasia' never entered any of our thoughts," says Dr. Nick Meittinis, Pimlico's attending veterinarian.

The diagnosis was delivered to trainer Michael Matz and Barbaro's owners.


Racing injuries
Once it was decided that Barbaro was a surgical candidate, they tried to assess his blood flow to the lower limb. He did not have a great pulse at the time of exam. With the fracture and a lot of peripheral bleeding under the skin, he was probably in a certain degree of shock, which would make his pulse a little thready. With those two things going against them, there was a third. When he shattered P1, he didn't leave an intact strut, a continuous piece bone from the cannon down the middle of the pastern. The major concern was how a surgeon would be able to get it together.

"From that point on we knew he would have to go to Dean (Richardson, chief of surgery and the Charles W. Raker Professor of Equine Surgery at Penn's Widener Hospital at New Bolton Center), but whether he was going to survive and whether Dean could put it together, wasn't really our concern, but only whether we could get him there," Meittinis says.

They put a four-layer Robert Jones bandage on him, a pressure bandage, applied two layers of padding and a tight wrap. They created a tube, with the hoof, the pastern, and the cannon bone, in a straight extension inside it. Three quarters through the Robert Jones bandage, they integrated the Kimzey splint for added stability. Therefore the leg would stay in extension and he could use the Kimzey and the bandage as some support during the two and a half-hour van ride to New Bolton. They also narrowed the stall within the ambulance so he could lean.