- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

Nobiz Like Shobiz. Scat Daddy. Curlin. Circular Quay.

These colts and a half dozen other Kentucky Derby hopefuls have been publicized, scrutinized and handicapped all the way to today’s post time at Churchill Downs.

By the time the band strikes up “My Old Kentucky Home,” everything about these gorgeous creatures will be all too familiar to thoroughbred racing fans.

Even then, the mention of one horse in particular likely will choke them up: Barbaro.

Who can forget the sight of him blazing down the stretch on Derby Day and pulling away from the field for a breathtaking 6-1/2-length victory, the widest margin in 60 years? Undefeated in six races, Barbaro was proclaimed the next Triple Crown champion even before he arrived at the winner’s circle.

“That moment of athletic achievement, borderline perfection for a 3-year-old colt, that doesn’t go away,” said Dr. Dean Richardson, chief of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa.

Dr. Richardson became inextricably linked to Barbaro after the colt’s harrowing breakdown at the Preakness. He operated on him the next day; eight months later, he euthanized him after an insidious case of laminitis dealt the horse a final blow.

The racing industry is attempting to put behind a sorrowful season and look ahead to a new start.

Still, Barbaro looms large.

Intertwined with Derby preparations are myriad events commemorating Barbaro. Documentaries and television specials are ready to roll, Barbaro books have hit the shelves and tracks across the country are planning tributes.

“It’s incredible to me that America is remembering him in such a manner,” said Gretchen Jackson, who, with husband, Roy, bred and owned the colt.

It’s being called the Barbaro Effect, and it extends far beyond the elite world of racehorses:

• Funds have been set up to raise millions of dollars for equine research — particularly into laminitis, the painful and usually fatal hoof disease that ultimately killed Barbaro.

• Racetracks are replacing conventional dirt tracks with softer, apparently safer synthetic surfaces in hopes of decreasing the number of breakdowns.

• The Jacksons have been outspoken in trying to eliminate horse slaughter in the United States. A bill is pending in the Senate.

• Barbaro-inspired Web sites have brought people together in the name of improving horse care, which has resulted in the rescue of hundreds of horses headed to slaughterhouses.

“Barbaro has done more to raise the awareness about horse issues than probably any other horse in the world,” said Jo Deibel, the president of Angel Acres Horse Haven Rescue, a horse rescue operation based in Glenville, Pa.

Equine research

The treatment of Barbaro showed improved technology has increased the success rate of repairing broken bones — even in severe cases. But it also became clear curing laminitis, or even successfully treating it, is a long way off. Laminitis has afflicted horses for a long time, and studies indicate tens of thousands of horses have the disease; thousands die because of it.

There have been many laminitis studies through the years, “but it’s still not much when you look at the big picture,” said Dr. Corinne Sweeney, the executive director at New Bolton. “It’s not due to a lack of talent, but lack of dollars. Very few have looked at determining the cause. Ideally, you try to prevent it but until we reach that stage, it’s how do we stop it once it occurs.”

Barbaro’s plight has made an impact. Conquering the dreaded hoof disease — often caused by unequal weight distribution — has become a priority. A $3 million gift by the Jacksons to endow a chair at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania anchors the school’s quest to cure laminitis.

The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation approved three new laminitis studies and issued a grant for a study on preventing infections in fracture repair.

The Barbaro Fund at New Bolton was up and running a few days after the horse was injured, when an anonymous donation for $500,000 was received. A Barbaro Memorial Fund was set up by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, with a goal of $1 million for laminitis research and other equine health issues.

Synthetic tracks

Barbaro’s injury might provide the drive to reduce fatal injuries on the racetrack, currently estimated at 1.5 per 1,000 starts, or nearly two per day in the United States.

“My instinct is that the heartfelt emotions unleashed by racing fans and nonracing fans for Barbaro can only help the movement toward safer racing,” said Keeneland President Nick Nicholson, whose track in Lexington, Ky., made the switch last fall.

By the end of the year, all major tracks in California will have synthetic surfaces. Hollywood Park already has one, Del Mar is installing one and Santa Anita will follow suit. The 2008 Breeders’ Cup will be held at Santa Anita — the first time racing’s world championships will be run on a synthetic surface.

So far, the results have been encouraging.

There were no fatal injuries during Hollywood Park’s fall meet, its first with the new surface. A year earlier, there were seven fatal breakdowns. At Keeneland’s fall meet, there was one fatal breakdown compared with three a year earlier on the dirt track.

In 2004-05 at Turfway, there were 24 fatal breakdowns; a year later on Polytrack, the number dropped to three.

Horse slaughter

During Barbaro’s stay at New Bolton, the Jacksons took up the cause of ending horse slaughter in the United States.

“Bringing more attention can only help,” said John Hettinger, a respected horseman and the leader of the anti-slaughter movement.

There are three slaughterhouses in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 100,800 American horses were slaughtered in 2006.

A bill that bans horse slaughter for human consumption passed in the House by a 263-146 vote last year. But a companion bill never passed in the Senate, and the legislative process began again this year.

Recently, federal appeals courts have issued rulings forcing the plants to all but shut down their slaughtering operations for the purpose of selling the meat for human consumption overseas.

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