KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. — Barbaro underwent more than five hours of surgery Sunday to repair rear leg bones he’d broken in the Preakness, calmly awoke from anesthesia and “practically jogged back to his stall” for something to eat.
His survival, however, is still 50-50.
Despite the huge first step on the road to recovery, Dr. Dean Richardson said the Kentucky Derby winner’s fate still came down to “a coin toss.”
“Right now he’s very happy,” Richardson said after the surgery at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center for Large Animals. “He’s eating, he’s doing very good. But I’ve been doing this too long to know that day one is the end of things.”
The strapping 3-year-old colt suffered “life-threatening injuries” Saturday when he broke bones above and below his right rear ankle at the start of the Preakness Stakes. His surgery began around noon Sunday, and it wasn’t until some eight hours later that Richardson and trainer Michael Matz emerged to announce that all had gone well.
“From the last time I saw him to now was a big relief,” said a visibly fatigued Matz. “They did an excellent job. It’s just an amazing thing to see him walk in like that.
“I feel much more comfortable now. I feel at least he has a chance.”
Unbeaten and a serious contender for the Triple Crown, Barbaro broke down Saturday only a few hundred yards into the 1 3/16-mile Preakness in Baltimore. The record crowd of 118,402 watched in shock as Barbaro veered sideways, his right leg flaring out grotesquely. Jockey Edgar Prado pulled the powerful colt to a halt, jumped off and awaited medical assistance.
Barbaro broke his cannon bone above the ankle, his sesamoid bone behind the ankle and long pastern bone below the ankle. The fetlock joint, the ankle, was dislocated.
Richardson said the pastern bone was shattered in “20-plus pieces.”
The bones were put in place to fuse the joint by inserting a plate and 23 screws to repair damage so severe that most horses would not be able to survive it.
When he came out of surgery, Barbaro was lifted by sling and placed on a raft in a pool so he could calmly awake from the anesthetic.
Richardson said the horse “practically jogged back to his stall” and was wearing a cast from just below the hock to the hoof.
“He’s a real genuine athlete, there’s no doubt about it,” Richardson said. “Even the way he woke up from anesthesia, he was very much the athlete waking up from general anesthesia.”
Richardson again stressed that Barbaro had many hurdles to clear.
“Horses with this type of injury are very, very susceptible to lots of other problems, including infection at the site,” he said.
Horses are frequently euthanized after serious leg injuries because circulation problems and deadly disease can arise if they can’t distribute weight evenly — and lying down for long periods can cause internal problems, making immobilization or elevation impossible.
Richardson said he expects Barbaro to remain at the center for several weeks, but “it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s here much longer than that.”
Tucked away on a sprawling, lush 650-acre campus in Chester County, the New Bolton Center is widely considered the top hospital for horses in the mid-Atlantic region. It is renowned for its specialized care, especially on animals needing complicated surgery on bone injuries.
Roses, other assorted flowers and cards from fans and admirers expressing well wishes were delivered to the center Sunday and displayed in the lobby. One sign said “Be Well Barbaro.” Two apples and five carrots, some of a horse’s favorite snacks, lay next to the flowers.
The breaks in the colt’s leg occurred as a result of an “athletic injury,” said Corinne Sweeney, a veterinarian and the hospital’s executive director.
“It’s an injury associated with the rigors of high performance,” she said. “They were designed as athletes and they are elite athletes, thus they incur injuries associated with performance. The frame sometimes plays a role, absolutely.”
Barbara Dallap, a clinician at the center, was present when Barbaro arrived at the center Saturday night.
“When we unloaded him, he was placed in intensive care and we stabilized him overnight,” Dallap said. “He was very brave and well behaved under the situation and was comfortable overnight.”