Jon Freeman: Why can’t all horses with broken legs be saved?

St Nicholas Abbey’s recovery depends on his temperament and avoiding complications

As St Nicholas Abbey, which should have been taking part in Saturday’s big race, begins his long and uncertain road to recovery from a fractured pastern with a view to embarking on a highly lucrative stud career, the question is inevitably being asked again: “Why can’t all horses with broken legs be saved?”

Cost is a factor, of course, and not everybody has the means or financial incentive to attempt to rescue a stricken horse. But it’s not just down to money – there are simply no guarantees.

It is certainly true that a happy outcome is possible; Mill Reef, the 1971 Derby winner, famously recovered from a broken leg to become a hugely successful sire. But hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on six operations on Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, and it still wasn’t enough to save his life.

A big factor in a horse’s ability to recover is its temperament, and the owners of St Nicholas Abbey are encouraged that he has a good mental attitude, something that was said to have helped the laidback Mill Reef to pull through.

But it is the physical aftermath of surgery which can be so critical. The horse’s weight (500kg) is now borne by three legs instead of four and this can all too readily lead to complications, including most commonly laminitis, which affects the blood supply and is thought to be extremely painful. This is what finally did for Barbaro, more than eight months after he incurred his injury. Ominously, St Nicholas has now suffered a colic attack.

Advances in technology have reduced equine fatalities in recent years, but vets still have to consider the future welfare of each horse before trying to save it after serious injury. What are the chances of survival? Will it become a danger to itself or others? Will it be confined to its box for the rest of its life? Will it always be in pain?

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