Thoroughbred Aftercare: A New Legacy for Barbaro? - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Thoroughbred Aftercare: A New Legacy for Barbaro?

It's been five years since the passing of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, whose only career defeat in seven starts came when he fractured his right hind leg and he was pulled up shortly after the start of the Preakness on May 20, 2006.

Though surgery repaired the badly damaged leg, Barbaro's death seemed like a fait accompli after the son of Dynaformer was struck by laminitis on his left hind leg in early July. That he lived nearly seven more months is a tribute to both his indelible spirit and courage and the advancements in veterinary science that amazed the world almost from the moment he arrived at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa.

But here we are five years later, and veterinarians and researchers seem no closer to understanding how to beat laminitis than New Bolton vet Dean Richardson and his team did five years ago. Last month the American Association of Equine Practitioners, in announcing a $1-million fund-raising goal for the Laminitis Research Project, said the complex, painful foot and circulation disease “remains one of the most frustrating medical mysteries for equine veterinarians.”

Barbaro's injury and struggle to survive did more than showcase how far veterinary science has come or remind us that the need to support equine research is still very much there. Barbaro, his trainer Michael Matz recently told the Baltimore Sun, “brought racing together more than anyone had done in a long time.”

That he did, but I'm afraid the spirit that brought so many people together in their shared love of the horse has disintegrated. As we argue over regulations, animal welfare issues, medication, and takeout, some have lost sight of the one thing that unites so many of us: our love of the Thoroughbred.

The days immediately following the Preakness, though painful for those closest to Barbaro (Matz and his stable staff, owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, and jockey Edgar Prado), were strangely uplifting to me, and perhaps to others. The outpouring of compassion for Barbaro and his struggle –  from hardened horseplayers, animal lovers of all ages, and a national news media that seldom shows any interest in racing – helped reinforce the belief for many of us that we were involved in something that, at its core, was decent and humane.

Yes, I believe Barbaro did all that. He was our sport's rallying cry for, to borrow the phrase from Barbaro chronicler Alex Brown's book title, “greatness and goodness.” Those qualities have been elusive in recent years as the industry struggles both economically and with its very own identity.

Who, or what, is there to rally around today? Too often, it's a dollar sign, a number, or an issue that has more to do with the people or economics of racing than the animal. Whatever happened to the phrase, “If you do right by the horse, the horse will do right by you?”

On Friday, I suggested that time is running out for the industry to act on the long-neglected issue of Thoroughbred aftercare. On almost a weekly basis, our industry is being smeared, deservedly or not, by heartless cruelty to horses by what I can only say are evil people.

The new world of instant communications and social networking spreads these stories like a fast-moving virus, and whether or not the Thoroughbred industry is at fault, all of us are cast in a shadow. Thoroughbred racing is, like it or not, a poster child for the equine world. The lack of response to animal welfare crises from the Thoroughbred industry, borne out of resistance to collaboration or centralization, only makes these matters worse. Our image is getting killed, because people everywhere love horses, and the message we are sending them is, “We don't really care.”

Can Thoroughbred industry leaders stop the abuse of horses or provide for every unwanted equine for the rest of its life? Of course not. But it would be reassuring for the industry to have a program that says, “We are doing everything we can.”

Now that would be a great legacy for Barbaro.

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