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Understanding Barbaro's Injury

T.O. Whenham of Doc's Sports Picks

I've been an enthusiastic horse racing fan my whole life, so when Barbaro broke down on Saturday afternoon I felt as if I had been shot in the gut. I didn't know what had happened, but I've been around horses enough in my life to know that it was bad. Really, really bad. Horse racing has a unique ability to crush its fans' souls, but this takes it to a new level. Not only did we not get to see this horse with a boatload of potential run in a race that set up almost perfectly for him, but we will never get to know just how good he was. His injuries were truly terrible, and they can be difficult to understand. Here's my attempt to make what happened during the race, and what happened in the operating room on Sunday, a little bit clearer.

The first thing we have to get straight is that Barbaro will never run a race again. There will be no miracle, no chance of an unexpected Seabiscuit-esque comeback, no truly happy ending. Right now, the best that we can hope for is for Barbaro to survive. Things are going well so far, but survival is still far from a sure thing. In fact, it's hard not to be pessimistic even at this point. If this were almost any horse in the world other than Barbaro, he would have been put down right at the racetrack. The very best we can hope for is that he is able to be productive as a stallion. There are many, many months and a good deal of luck between now and that possibility. According to his vet, his chances of survival are about 50-50 right now.

Barbaro has injured his right hind leg. The injury, which is actually four separate injuries, happened in several steps. The first injury, which was likely the result of a bad step, was a condylar fracture of the cannon bone. The cannon bone is the long bone right below the hock, which is basically the knee in the hind leg. It's not quite accurate, but essentially the cannon bone is like our shin. A fracture in this bone is fairly common and not particularly serious. Many horses come back from a fractured cannon bone and return to the track.

When the cannon bone broke it made a sound so loud that not only Barbaro's jockey Edgar Prado heard it, but Alex Solis on Brother Derek reportedly did, too. Prado immediately knew what was wrong and tried to stop his horse. Unfortunately, that took a couple hundred yards to do. There are a couple of potential reasons for that. First, since the cannon bone injury happened near the start of the race, Barbaro was full of adrenaline. That means that he would have no interest in leaving the race. The adrenaline would likely have stopped him from feeling that he was injured. If he did feel the injury, his own nervous system could have worked against him. A horse's first reaction when it senses trouble is flight. Therefore, if he felt pain, his response would be to run away from it. Either way, Edgar Prado handled the situation brilliantly and likely gave Barbaro any chance he does have.

Regardless of how it happened, the fact is that the extra distance he ran caused three more injuries. The most serious was a fracture of the long pastern bone, or fist phalanx. That's one of two bones between the cannon bone and the bones of the hoof. In a horse the size of Barbaro, that bone is likely about 4-6 inches long. It didn't just break cleanly, it shattered. It broke into more than 20 pieces. The ankle, or fetlock joint, which joins the cannon bone to the long pastern, was also dislocated. Finally, the sesamoid, a bone behind the ankle, was also broken. The bright spot, if there was one, is that the bones did not break the skin. If they had, infection would have been very likely and chances for survival would be very dim.

To fix the problems took a surgery that lasted nearly seven hours on Sunday. Essentially, they use a long metal plate and 23 screws to fuse together the ankle joint and the bones on either side of it. That means that Barbaro will never have movement in that joint again. The screws repaired the cannon bone fracture, went through the ankle joint to prevent movement, and pieced together the long pastern. After the surgery, Barbaro was fixed with a cast from his hoof to his hock.

The surgery was a success, but Barbaro is far from out of the woods. If Barbaro were a person he would be in bed for weeks as the bones healed. A horse can't be off his feet for any extended period of time (if a horse lays down to long, then, among other problems, his guts can get all twisted up). That means that he has to stand on the bad leg, and he was soon after he was revived from anesthesia. That can create its own problems. Keeping a fit horse relatively inactive is very difficult. On Saturday Barbaro was at peak fitness. Now he can never run again. To make matters worse, he's a horse, so you can't explain the problem to him. It is not a surprise that horses often struggle to come to terms with their new reality. Barbaro is behaving very well now, but it remains to be seen how he will handle his situation days and weeks from now. If he doesn't stand still, he could break the leg again before it heals. That would likely be fatal.

Breaking the leg again is far from the only problem that could arise. Infection from the surgery or a bad reaction to the plates or screws is a huge concern. Another major problem is laminitis. The coffin bone is the bone inside the hoof. When a horse suffers from laminitis, the coffin bone basically moves inside the foot. If Barbaro won't support weight on his injured leg, the other three legs would have to support extra weight. That, coupled with the stress and trauma of the situation, could cause laminitis in those feet. Laminitis can range from mild to severe, but the results would likely be fatal when coupled with the other problems facing Barbaro.

Barbaro will undergo a very lengthy recovery, likely not even walking any great distance for many weeks. If all goes well, the horse will eventually enter stud. His impressive career, sadly capped by the Kentucky Derby victory, and his outstanding pedigree will make him a popular stallion. Unfortunately, that will put extra strain on his injured leg. Unlike almost every other breed of horse, a thoroughbred must be physically bred to each mare. Most other breeds can be artificially inseminated, but thoroughbreds cannot. That's due to many reasons, including tradition and a desire to maintain the health of the breed. As a result, every time Barbaro breeds a mare, he will, in a fairly violent motion, throw his entire 1,100-1,200 pound mass onto his two hind legs. The leg will have to heal well in order to stand up under that force.

This is obviously pure speculation, but it seems likely that, even if Barbaro were to heal well, he would have a shorter and less productive stud career than he might have otherwise. He would likely have to have a less strenuous schedule than most top stallions. His damaged leg would likely lead to further leg problems down the line, potentially cutting short his career. Still, at this point, any breeding time would be a huge bonus and all that we could possibly hope for. If you had asked me three days ago, that's not what I would have thought I'd be hoping for today, but now it's all we've got.

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