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Barbaro: the big questions that remain

January 30, 2007

by Neil Clarkson

The fairytale ending was not to be for Barbaro.

The Kentucky Derby winner had shown much of his fighting spirit as he overcame major complications during nearly nine months of rehabilitation.

In the end it was laminitis, not the completely healed catastrophic fractures in his hind leg, that proved his downfall.

Laminitis, a life-threatening inflammation of the hoof lining, is the achilles heel of horses, in much the same way heart disease is in humans.

Surgeon Dean Richardson said Barbaro literally ran out of good legs to stand on.

Barbaro's legacies are already many. There is the Barbaro Foundation, set up in his honour. There is the knowledge gained from an intensive treatment regime never seen before.

On any other day, in any other horse, the shattered bones that ended Barbaro's chances in the Preakness Stakes would have spelt the end within minutes.

Barbaro was to sadly stumble at the last hurdle, but there is no doubt that much was learned in the treatment of the four-year-old colt.

The horse deserves every word of adulation - and there have been many millions of them in the hours since his death. The horse handled the nine months of treatment with great dignity. As surgeon Richardson said, for the vast majority of the time he was a happy horse.

Wider questions must be addressed in the death of this true racing champion. Perhaps they will become Barbaro's greatest legacy? They are questions the racing industry must address.

People do not attend the races to weep at the site of a champion racehorse shattering his leg, as many did that day last May.

The injury rate among thoroughbreds is unacceptably high - the industry itself acknowledges this. The question is: what is being done?

The number of catastrophic injuries among thoroughbreds on grass tracks must be drastically reduced. Barbaro's injury was a torque fracture, in which he is likely to have put his leg down badly and swivelled. The ground held the foot, causing the bone to shatter.

There seems little doubt that such an injury would not have resulted on a synthetic racing surface. In California, synthetic surfaces will be required on all tracks by the end of 2008.

Already, Hollywood Park, the first California track to have the surface installed, is enjoying higher betting turnover, lower injury rates, and has even reversed the long-term trend of declining horse numbers.

Other tracks around the US report similar trends. The synthetic surfaces are described as kind and consistent.

But the industry worries will not end there.

Two other issues are of serious concern. The careers of racehorses are getting shorter. Are the tracks to blame? Or is the reason, as some suggest, that thoroughbreds are no longer being bred for durability.

Industry leaders have already admitted that the quality and character of thoroughbreds in the US has changed in recent decades.

Statistics reveal that, in the 1950s, about 20 per cent of thoroughbred fillies were used for breeding. That figure is now close to 60 per cent in the United States.

Some breeders now believe that breeding decisions are being made at the expense of durability. "It is a beauty contest now," said one. Breeders were, he said, producing less sound horses.

Others breeders argue that they are simply providing buyers what they want.

Whatever the reasons, any losses to injury are not only discouraging for racehorse owners, but detrimental to the industry.

What will be Barbaro's legacy?

Only time will tell.

However, for now, let the tears and the eulogies flow.

 

 

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