Odds stacked against the best-loved horse in US

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The Independent US

The fate of Barbaro, America's best-loved racehorse, was hanging in the balance yesterday as specialists sought to save him from a painful hoof disease.

Seven weeks ago, the horse shattered a hind leg in 20 places when he stumbled soon after leaving the gate in the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of US racing's triple crown. Almost any other animal would have been put down on the spot, but Barbaro was taken to a veterinary hospital in Pennsylvania, where the leg was put together again with plates and 27 screws in an operation lasting five hours.

The surgery was an initial success. Blessed with a robust constitution and a seemingly indomitable spirit, the horse was soon eating normally. Even then, however, the prognosis was uncertain, as Dr Dean Richardson, Barbaro's chief surgeon, gave him only a 51-49 per cent chance of survival.

The main threat, he warned, was laminitis, an inflammation of the tissue that separates the bone from the hoof. The condition, which can be acutely painful, often arises when a horse suffers an injury to one leg and has to put unusual weight on another. And so it has proved.

On Thursday evening, a deeply upset Dr Richardson told a press conference that Barbaro had developed severe laminitis in his good left hind leg. Asked about his chances of coming through, he answered that, "I'd be lying if I said anything other than poor," and warned that the end could come within 24 or 48 hours. "We are only going on with this horse so long as everyone involved can come in every day, look at this horse and be convinced that on this day and the next day, he is going to be acceptably comfortable," he said. Yesterday the news was more encouraging. Barbaro, said Dr Richardson, was doing much better, and was "a long shot" to survive. "He had a good night last night and even slept on his side." He was eating well and in apparent good spirits.

Even so it would be a near miracle if the horse overcomes the latest illness. Even before the laminitis, specialists had to replace the cast on the broken right leg four times in a week, including a three-hour operation last Saturday, when Dr Richardson replaced the titanium plate and screws.

The laminitis presents a potentially fatal new challenge. In anatomical terms, a horse walks on the tip of its middle finger. If a horse loses the connection between bone and hoof, he explained to reporters, it was "exquisitely painful" for the animal.

These fraught days are in utter contrast to the mood shortly before 6pm on 20 May. Then Barbaro seemed set to become the first winner of US racing's triple crown - the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes - in 28 years. He had won his first five races in imperious style, and surged to victory in the Derby in record time. Admirers were likening him to Secretariat, arguably the greatest American horse of the modern era. But that evening at the Preakness, Barbaro first was involved in a false start and then stumbled within seconds of leaving the gate. His life now hangs in the balance. Secretariat himself provides a mixed omen. He won the Triple Crown in 1973 but 16 years later had to be put down, on account of laminitis.