Hundreds of anxious fans and dozens of reporters swarmed around the stakes barn at Pimlico Race Course minutes after the 2006 Preakness Stakes. Security officers shouted at onlookers to remain behind temporary barricades. Television news helicopters buzzed overhead.
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?
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.
In an instant during the 2006 Preakness Stakes, Barbaro's future went from win-or-lose to life-or-death. And in the next tense hour, his owners listened to expert advice, weighed his chances and came down on the side of love
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