By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
KENNETT SQUARE, Pa., Jan. 29 -- From the beginning, the one thing Gretchen and Roy Jackson said they would not tolerate was to see Barbaro in pain. On Monday morning, after their gravely injured Kentucky Derby winner would not lie down and sleep for two straight nights, the colt's owners met with Dean Richardson, chief of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, and agreed the time had come to put the beloved horse down.
At 10:30 a.m., with the Jacksons and a resident of the hospital present, Richardson administered a heavy dose of tranquilizer into Barbaro's veins as well as an intravenous overdose of an anesthetic, and Barbaro was quickly gone.
"It could not have been more peaceful," Richardson said, speaking haltingly, as he joined the Jacksons in the hospital's Woerner Amphitheater to address the end of an odyssey that began May 20 when Barbaro shattered his right hind leg less than 50 strides out of the gate at the start of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.
The horse, who entered that race undefeated and displaying the potential and promise to become one of the greatest runners of all time, captured the attention of people across the country, even those who otherwise paid little attention to horse racing, as he fought to overcome his massive injuries. Most thoroughbreds would have been put down immediately. But Barbaro was special, and he promised to reward his owners handsomely with stud fees had he recovered.
In the end, however, a deep abscess in Barbaro's right hind foot led, as Richardson described it, to the other legs coming apart like a house of cards. With the horse unable to bear his massive weight on his hind hooves, the front ones began developing the debilitating, severe laminitis that plagued his left hind hoof last summer.
"One thing I can tell you is Barbaro had many, many good days," Richardson said, choking with emotion. "We get wrapped up in a lot of horses and animals. It isn't that much different. [Last night] he was just a different horse. He was upset. It was more than we wanted to put him through."
In the lobby of the hospital Monday, where care packages of carrots and cookies arrived daily from fans and well-wishers the last eight months, a vase of red roses was draped with a ribbon that read, "In loving memory." On a table lining a wall were more flower displays with sympathy cards instead of the usual get-well cards.
With the first five races of his career, Barbaro had become a phenomenon in the sport of horse racing, but after he won the Kentucky Derby last year by 6 1/2 lengths, the widest margin of victory since 1946, he became a national star. His potential appeared almost limitless. Along with the possibility of capturing racing's Triple Crown, he was widely considered a prospect to run in one of Europe's great classic races such as the Epsom Derby in England or Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in France.
In the depressed and struggling sport of horse racing in the United States, he was the great new hope. After his injury, the outpouring of sympathy was unprecedented, and the media attention surrounding the struggle to keep him alive helped to cast the sport in a positive light.
"I'd like us all to say a prayer for Barbaro," Gretchen Jackson said. "I hope we can turn our love into an energy to support horses throughout the world and not just through the horse we loved. One fan of Barbaro said a great statement to me today that meant a lot: 'Please finish these unfinished tasks of mine and I will comfort you.' "
Roy Jackson said Barbaro cast a much-needed spotlight on numerous horse-related issues such as an anti-slaughter bill in Congress that would ban the export of horse meat, poor conditions for racetrack employees such as grooms and stable hands and equine medicine. "It would be our hope that some of these issues won't die and will be brought up in a positive way," he said.
The enormous response to Barbaro's plight galvanized support for equine medicine, with the start of the Barbaro Fund, which has raised $1.2 million, as well as the New Bolton Center, which received a $13.5 million gift from the state of Pennsylvania.
"Barbaro was an icon to the racing industry that transcended racing to the general public," said Scott Palmer, a surgeon at the New Jersey Equine Clinic. "The opportunities afforded that horse were as heroic and modern as any human athlete would be afforded. Barbaro showed how much racing cares for its horses and veterinarians care for theirs. He had a warrior spirit to survive and we wanted to give him every opportunity to do that. The motives of the Jacksons were very pure. The process had integrity to it. We weren't just tilting at windmills."
Richardson, wearing hospital scrubs, said he performed a long, complicated surgery on another horse in the hours after euthanizing Barbaro, something that helped keep his mind occupied for a while.
The decision, he said, was not difficult to make.
"The Jacksons and I have had a close relationship for a long time," he said. "We all went through this knowing a lot of bad things could happen and this day could come. But I am comfortable we made the right decision."
Richardson said he learned a lot through Barbaro's ordeal.
"If another horse came in tomorrow with the same fractures, I think I'd have a better chance to save his life," he said. "I know I made mistakes. You expect to get better at what you do."
In mid-December, Richardson and the Jacksons speculated that Barbaro might soon be well enough to relocate to a farm, possibly in Kentucky. Talk turned to the possibility of a breeding career, but just as quickly the colt's damaged left hoof took another bad turn and his condition worsened.
Gretchen Jackson was asked to express her feelings and she didn't hesitate: "It's very positive. I have very positive thoughts. It was the best of times for us. We were lucky to have had a horse like him."