Heartbeats and Hoofbeats: Saying goodbye to a hero

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11708793911740.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of http://1010wins.com’, ‘Barbaro‘);

Last week, we lost an outstanding athlete who, unlike some in the news recently, was a champion in every sense of the word. Barbaro, whose princely victory at the Kentucky Derby last May gained him instant fame, finally succumbed to the crushing injuries he suffered at the Preakness.

It was a long, hard-fought battle with many ups and downs, and over the last eight months, he gained a world of fans and well-wishers. He collected cards, letters, gifts, even a Christmas stocking.

After the Preakness breakdown May 20, 2006 Barbaro was rushed to New Bolton Center, Pa., where he underwent a five-hour operation to fuse two joints—from injuries most horses could not survive. Extraordinary measures were taken to save an extraordinary horse.

The infection that ultimately spelled his doom was laminitis—the same ailment that also felled Secretariat. After suffering a setback the previous weekend, Barbaro went through another surgery to insert two steel pins in a bone, which had healed from the Preakness accident, to take weight off the ailing right rear hoof. It was a risky procedure because it transferred more weight to the leg. Still, the leg seemed to be mending until an abscess began causing problems. Until then, attention was focused on Barbaro’s left rear leg, which had developed laminitis in July, resulting in removal of 80 percent of the hoof.

After months of good progress reports, the laminitis flared up Jan. 10. Veterinarian Dr. Dean Richardson removed damaged tissue from the left rear hoof, and Barbaro was put back in a protective sling. Jan. 13, another section of the left rear hoof was removed. Then, the abscess developed in the right rear hoof, and surgery was performed to insert two steel pins in a bone.

Things went downhill from there, and after Barbaro suffered through a painful night, the decision was made to put him down.

Those who knew him best saluted his courage. An Associated Press story quoted Peter Brette, Barbaro’s exercise rider and assistant trainer: “We loved him. He was great. He did everything we ever asked of him. He could have been one of the best. What a fighter he was.”

Owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who were with Barbaro Monday morning consulting with the surgeon, agreed. They spent thousands of dollars in the effort to save him, just so he could have a comfortable life, whether breeding or not. David Switzer, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, said: “This horse was a hero. His owners went above and beyond the call of duty to save this horse… but I think they did the right thing.”

Was it all in vain? Not quite. Since June, $1.2 million has been raised for the Barbaro Fund. The money goes toward necessary equipment such as an operating room table, a raft and sling for the same pool recovery used by Barbaro after his surgeries. This beloved horse leaves a legacy of caring and compassion, bringing together the best efforts of people who share a bond with him and other creatures. Other horses and owners will benefit from the generosity. This is the best memorial he could have.

That still doesn’t mean it isn’t hard to accept. Dr. Dean Richardson, chief of surgery for the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, said, “I’m still having trouble dealing with it.” And as owner Gretchen Jackson said that Monday the final decision was made, grief was the price they all paid for love. Tributes are still pouring in to the hospital at Kennett Square—bouquets of flowers with sympathy cards attached.

Somehow, at a time when so many things were going wrong—celebrity and political scandals, the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and its difficult aftermath—this horse became a symbol of hope. Maybe, just maybe, somebody could give us some good news. And he did. Here was an athlete everybody could rejoice in and be proud of. He never gave up.

This chestnut colt with the star on his forehead may have put some folks in mind of another horse from another era. As J. A. Estes expressed it in his poem “Big Red”:

“A foal is born at midnight

And in the frosty morn

The horseman eyes him fondly,

And a secret hope is born.

“But breathe it not, nor whisper,

For fear of a neighbor’s scorn:

He’s a chestnut colt, and he’s got a star—

He may be another Man o’ War.

“Nay, say it aloud—be shameless.

Dream and hope and yearn,

For there’s never a man among you

But waits for his return.”

From the Feb. 7-13, 2007, issue

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