By John Eisenberg
May 13, 2007
The whole world, it seemed, was waiting to hear about Barbaro. Would the popular thoroughbred survive the catastrophic leg injury he had just sustained, or would he be euthanized?
In the midst of the chaotic scene, three veterinarians and Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, gathered with the horse's trainer, Michael Matz. They had just seen X-rays of the injury that had shattered bones into more than two dozen pieces.
It was time to make a decision.
Nearly a year after the tragic moment, The Sun reconstructed the events - and emotions - surrounding that crucial decision. Faced with a life-or-death call, the small group huddled and aired their concerns as a crowd of more than 100,000 and millions of viewers nationwide waited. Their decision to keep the horse alive revolved around overwhelming love for the animal, the instincts of the veterinarians present and a key opinion voiced by a trusted friend.
"We found a quiet little spot amid all the noise and activity, on the walkway outside the barn. It was kind of a surreal moment," said Dr. Scott Palmer, a New Jersey-based vet and longtime friend of Matz's who had attended the race as the trainer's guest and was now making the ultimate emergency call.
Palmer told the Jacksons that Barbaro's injury was severe, but it was possible the horse could be saved. The conversation immediately turned to logistics: where to send the horse, how to get him there and what surgeon to use.
"Some people have a hard time believing it, but the subject of euthanizing him never came up," Palmer recalls.
Dr. Dan Dreyfuss, a Maryland-based vet who was also at the stakes barn that evening, says, "There was never a moment of epiphany where one of us shouted, 'OK, we're going to try to save him!' It's hard to explain. We all just operated under the assumption that we were going to try to save him. It was never put into words, but it was very clear everyone felt the same way."
The decision to try to save Barbaro set in motion a remarkable chain of events. The horse became America's foremost patient during his eight-month struggle to survive at the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa. Although the onset of laminitis, a painful hoof condition, led to his demise in late January, his case focused intense and welcomed attention on a variety of equine health issues.
A year later, on the eve of the 2007 Preakness, millions of dollars have been raised for laminitis research. A bill to eliminate horse slaughter in the United States is pending in the Senate. A handful of racetracks have installed synthetic racing surfaces and seen breakdowns severely reduced. An array of Web sites have sprung up for fans concerned about horse care.
"None of that would have happened if Barbaro had been euthanized on Preakness day," Palmer said. "That would have been a tragedy, for sure, but that would have been the end of the story. As it happened, his struggle for survival became a bigger story and reached far more people. I don't think a Triple Crown winner could have had a more positive impact on racing.
"If he hadn't survived that day [of the Preakness], Barbaro's legacy wouldn't have happened. That makes the decision to try to save him a valuable and worthwhile decision."
Some critics say that the horse's chances of survival were minuscule and that he was taken advantage of, asked to endure too much. The Jacksons say they felt they owed him every chance to live because he had brought them so much joy with his string of six straight victories, including the 2006 Kentucky Derby.
Gretchen Jackson said last week at a laminitis research news conference in Louisville, Ky., that she and her husband had "absolutely no regrets" about how they handled Barbaro.
Critics also say the Jacksons wanted to save him strictly because he had earnings potential in the breeding industry. In fact, stallions stand on their hind legs while covering mares, and it was highly doubtful Barbaro's repaired right hind leg could have supported his weight.
"The Jacksons were tremendously in love with this horse," Palmer said. "He was Barbaro to everyone, but he was their Barbaro to them. There's a distinction.
"As one who was there when the decision to try to save him was made, I can say assuredly that the idea came strictly from the love they felt."
Still, Barbaro probably would have been euthanized if not for one key aspect of his injury. While the three major bones in his leg had been shattered, it was not a compound fracture. The skin had not been pierced.
"The fact that the injury was 'contained' in that sense was the factor that gave us hope," Palmer said.
Horses that suffer compound fractures during races sometimes are euthanized right on the track, said Joe Miller, a Maryland Jockey Club staff member who drove the equine ambulance that reached Barbaro moments after the horse broke down.
As Matz, the Jacksons, several vets and jockey club staffers gathered quickly around Barbaro, Miller, a veteran employee, removed from his ambulance and unfurled a green mesh screen. It is used to keep fans from viewing injured horses while vets tend to them on the track - and sometimes euthanize them.
"I had seen the fracture on TV before I got in the ambulance and got out there, and I knew it was bad," said Miller.
When savvy fans saw the screen, they feared that Barbaro was about to be euthanized. Some shouted angrily that the horse should not be put down.
"Take him home!" one wailed.
In fact, the idea of putting down Barbaro at that point was never discussed by those on the track. The severity of the injury wasn't yet clear, although it looked bad. In any case, because valuable horses are always insured, they're routinely taken back to the barn after being injured so X-rays can be taken.
"When I got the screen out, it was never with the thought that he would be put down there on the track," Miller said. "I didn't want fans to see him, and I didn't want photographers taking pictures of the injury."
As it turned out, Matz felt the screen was upsetting Barbaro as vets tended to him, because the screen made flapping noises in the wind. Matz asked Miller to take it down, and Miller did.
Glen Kozak, director of operations for the jockey club, said, "I was one of the first ones to get to Barbaro after he broke down, and from then until the moment we loaded him into the ambulance to take him back to the barn, the whole focus was on getting him out of there as quickly as possible."
As soon as Barbaro was back in his stall in the stakes barn, X-ray technicians went to work. Using digital technology, they produced views of the injury within minutes. Palmer, Dreyfuss and Dr. Nick Meittinis - Dreyfuss' partner in a private practice - studied the X-rays while Matz waited outside the stall and the Jacksons stood outside the barn.
Dreyfuss broke the news first to the Jacksons.
"When the first films came up, I went to them and told them what he had fractured, what the fracture looked like, went over the pluses and minuses," Dreyfuss said. "I gave them some of the specifics of what was going to make it different as a surgical case.
"They were incredibly gracious as I spoke to them. Not to put words in their mouths, but it was like, 'OK, you've told us all we need to know; now go back and help our horse.' They didn't say it anywhere near like that, but that was the message."
Meanwhile, Palmer convened with Matz.
"Mike said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'Mike, it's a terrible, terrible fracture, pretty much as bad as it can be," Palmer said. "He said, 'Why don't you come out [of the stall] and let's talk to the Jacksons about it?'"
The Jacksons knew the injury was severe, but they had not huddled with Matz. It was evident, Palmer said, that the Jacksons just wanted to know what was best for the horse. Palmer reiterated that the injury wasn't a compound fracture, so there was at least a semblance of hope, although special treatment would be needed.
Barbaro was at New Bolton within two hours.
"Whether they would have made a different decision, I don't know," Dreyfuss said. "It all happened very quickly. They were very respectful of the opinions we were giving them. I'm sure they would have listened. But as things unfolded, it was never discussed."
A year later, Barbaro remains in the spotlight. The Jacksons attended the Kentucky Derby on May 5 to highlight fundraising efforts for laminitis research. They will also be at Pimlico for the Preakness this Saturday.
"We've had people tell us it's going to be a long time before the Barbaro story goes away," Roy Jackson said last week. "We hope the emphasis is on using that to try to solve some of the critical issues in our business. We would like to see that be Barbaro's legacy. The fact that he fought so hard, we just hope down the road it helps other horses."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun