June 6, 2006




Be it tragedy or comedy, the play's the thing. In the case of Barbaro, the play was a tragedy, but at least the show went on. Hopefully, this drama will have an ending that doesn't leave its audience in tears.

Had Barbaro not suffered a life-threatening injury to his right hind ankle in the Preakness Stakes, the 6 1/2-length winner of the Kentucky Derby might be undefeated and on his way to becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed in 1978.

As it is, thanks to state of the art surgery performed by Dr. Dean Richardson and his dedicated team at the George D. Widener Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine's New Bolton Center, Barbaro is recovering beyond expectations. News of his progress is national in scope, with updates on network TV news, CNN, Fox, and top of the hour radio reports. Barbaro is bigger news as an injured hero than he would have been as an undefeated Triple Crown winner.

He has made lemonade out of a lemon.

"I'm generally an optimistic guy," said Doug O'Neill, one of the nation's leading trainers. "The positive spin from Barbaro's mishap shows that racing technology has advanced to the point that such an injury can be repaired and give a horse a chance to survive.

"Edgar Prado (Barbaro's jockey) did a great job pulling the horse up, because if his skin would have broken, he would have bled to death. This also shows how fragile animals are in this game, even though it's a beautiful sport. On the entire program of racing at Pimlico on Preakness day, Barbaro was the one horse that broke down. You hope to God no one breaks down ever, but here it's Barbaro, who was cared for much more than just a professional race horse.

"Horses like Barbaro are like pets in a way. Thank God, Barbaro is in the hands of a great trainer (Michael Matz) and great owners (Roy and Gretchen Jackson). They were adamant about trying to save him, whether or not he would ever race again or whether he would become a stallion. They did what was right by the horse. There are far more owners like that than those who don't have passion for the horse."

Giant strides in technology gave Barbaro an opportunity to live, but O'Neill says it's a misconception that efforts would not have been as exhausting to save a lesser horse.

"We've done it," O'Neill said. "We claimed a horse named Avian that I won three in a row with. She came down with an injury similar to Barbaro's, but in a front ankle. I worked out a deal with my vet and we saved her. I think the procedure ran somewhere around $8,000 to $10,000 and the vet did it at his cost and we split (ownership of) the mare. I've got babies out of her and I can't wait till one runs. But Avian was just a $10,000 claimer, so when you hear talk that, ‘Oh, if Barbaro had been any other horse, he would have been put down,' that's not the case at all."

Except for emergency care, when humans need medical attention, a patient can barely blurt out hello before asked if he has insurance. Veterinarians aren't that single-minded, according to O'Neill.

"They'll work with you if they know an owner wants to save his animal and doesn't have the financial means," he said. "At least the vets I've worked with have done it. They're going to do what's best for the horse and worry about the money later. That issue isn't talked about a whole lot within the industry or by the general public, but it's the truth."

THE HOMESTRETCH: Likely favorite Bluegrass Cat should get an ideal trip and win Saturday's Belmont, but must overtake lone speed horse High Finance, who gets tested for class and distance. Sunriver and late-running Jazil complete my superfecta . . . This from one insider: "Barbaro wasn't insured for mortality until after the Derby, which makes sense, because premiums are up to five percent (of a horse's value) now. So when you're talking about a horse like Barbaro, who's worth 15 to 20 million dollars, that's a big number." Five percent of $20,000,000 is a cool $1 million . . . O'Neill says 2005 Breeders' Cup Juvenile champion Stevie Wonderboy is about three weeks from returning to Hollywood Park after recovering from an ankle fracture at owner Merv Griffin's La Quinta ranch. "All the X-rays look good and he's happy," O'Neill said of Stevie Wonderboy, who has been sidelined since February . . . Jim Pegram, agent for former Southern California regular Kent Desormeaux, was a Hollywood Park visitor during a brief break in New York racing, where the Hall of Fame rider currently is plying his trade. "Things have been slow," Pegram said, "but he's riding hard. We're doing good. I expect things to pick up at Saratoga." . . . Ross Fenstermaker, former trainer of champion Precisionist, is progressing from a broken blood vessel on his brain suffered three months ago. "He is now walking without the aid of a cane," said friend and trainer Eddie Truman . . . No wonder Major League baseball can afford to pay mediocre players millions. Look at all the money it's saving on stirrups . . . Good news, bad news on the Pistons. The bad news: they were knocked out of the NBA playoffs. The good news: there was no rioting in Detroit.


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