Barbaro: Was It All Worth It?

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George Widman / AP

Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, September 2006

The bay colt galloped into the nation's hearts in May, with a stunning, six-and-a-half-length win in the Kentucky Derby that had the racing experts shouting Triple Crown. But two weeks later, his race toward the sports pantheon was abruptly halted, when he shattered his right hind leg at the start of the Preakness, inspiring a nationwide vigil. He was saved, but never out of danger: one day ready to sprint out of that Pennsylvania veterinary hospital that suddenly became a center of the sports world, the next day yet another setback. The emotional wave has finally crashed, as Barbaro was euthanized on Monday in Kennett Square, Pa., three months short of his fourth birthday, due to complications from his Preakness injuries.

Even if you question whether the tens of thousands of dollars that Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, spent on his medical care was worth it, for both a horse and fans in constant pain, you must admire how he inspired the public, showing that horse racing, now a marginalized pursuit on the American sporting landscape, can still have an impact. Just 200 yards into the Preakness, Barbaro's right hind leg gruesomely gave out. Jockey Edgar Prado's quick reflexes — he immediately halted the colt — saved Barbaro's life right there. The record crowd of 118,402 at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course fell completely silent — many wept. He was rushed to a veterinary hospital in Pennsylvania, where fans sent flowers, religious medals, fruit baskets, flowers and thousands of get-well e-mails that Barbaro could not read.

Surgery was successful. But while he survived the first scare, an eight-month roller coaster followed. In July, Barbaro developed severe laminitis, an equine foot disease in which the connection between the bone and hoof separates, causing excruciating pain. Dean Richardson, Barbaro's surgeon, called the colt's prognosis "poor." But his left hind hoof, uninjured in the Preakness, continued to re-grow after surgery removed 80% of it. In November, a cast on Barbaro's shattered right hind leg was removed. "In my mind's eye, he can leave in the not so distant future," Richardson declared.

He never would. The laminitis flared back up, and a deep abscess developed in his right hind foot. On Saturday, surgery was performed to place two steel pins in a bone to help ease the weight bearing on his ailing foot. "We said all along if there was a situation where it would become more difficult for him, then it would be time," co-owner Roy Jackson said on Monday.

Now, Barbaro watchers are left to wonder if the last eight months of pain and hope were really worth it. In virtually all such injuries, the racehorse would be euthanized — the unfortunate cost of a brutal, beautiful sport, where 1,200-lb. beasts fire down tracks on bean-pole legs. But Barbaro wasn't your typical horse. Whatever you think, Barbaro fought hard, and the fact that there was even talk of releasing him was a medical miracle. Isn't a near-miracle worth the try? It's a story with an unhappy ending, but the Jacksons got the timing right. They knew just when enough was enough.