Mainers mourn champion

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Local horse racing fans and veterinarians were among those mourning the death of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, who was euthanized Monday in Kennett Square, Pa.

Barbaro could not overcome complications stemming from his gruesome breakdown at last year’s Preakness, ending an eight-month ordeal that prompted an outpouring of support across the country.

A series of ailments, including laminitis in the left rear hoof and a recent abscess in the right rear hoof, proved too much for the gallant colt.

Dr. Denise McNitt, a horse veterinarian at Blackstrap Hill Veterinary Clinic in Falmouth, said Barbaro was in “uncharted” territory.

“The type of fracture was certainly the most severe you can possibly have,” said McNitt, who has treated horses for more than 25 years. “The horse did very, very well considering what he was up against. He had ups and downs, but he was comfortable, he had eaten well and he had a great attitude. The owners had always said that if the horse told them he didn’t want to fight anymore, they would listen. They respected that.”

Barbaro battled in his ICU stall for eight months. The 4-year-old colt underwent several procedures and was fitted with fiberglass casts. He spent time in a sling to ease pressure on his legs, had pins inserted and was fitted at the end with an external brace. These were all extraordinary measures for a horse with such injuries.

Bill Hathaway, a Turner resident and former executive secretary of the Maine Harness Association, said the reason for keeping Barbaro alive was two-fold.

“No. 1, (the doctors) wanted to find out if they could do it,” said Hathaway, who has raised racehorses for nearly 40 years. “Second, the value of this animal was in his breeding. That far exceeded any purses that he might have won actually racing. There’s a huge value for that type of horse. He would have been syndicated for millions of dollars.”

Barbaro suffered a significant setback over the weekend, and surgery was required to insert two steel pins in a bone – one of three shattered in the Preakness but now healthy – to eliminate all weight bearing on the ailing right rear foot.

The procedure Saturday was a risky one, because it transferred more weight to the leg while the foot rests on the ground bearing no weight.

Hathaway is convinced that extending Barbaro’s life will not become a trend for other injured racehorses.

“It was a personal love of this particular horse,” said Hathaway. “It was their affection that kept him alive, made them go the distance. It’s not commonplace, especially since it didn’t reach the conclusion they had hoped for.”

Brilliant on the racetrack, Barbaro always will be remembered for his brave fight for survival. The story of the beloved 4-year-old bay colt’s fight for life captured the fancy of millions.

McNitt chalks it up to society’s attitude toward animals.

“Our attitude (about animals) and livestock has changed a lot over the years,” said McNitt, who has treated horses for more than 25 years. “There is a lot of romance when it comes to a horse like Barbaro. Not only did his owners want him to live, Barbaro himself was willing to fight.

“With the technological age that we live in, people were able to chart his progress through the Web, they felt invested. I know vets all over the world were trading e-mails and talking about the procedures and processes. He was a fascinating horse.”

The Jacksons, Barbaro’s owners, spent tens of thousands of dollars hoping the best horse they ever owned would recover and be able to live a comfortable life on the farm, whether he was able to breed or not.

“It’s rare to see owners put as much into their horse as the horse put into them,” said McNitt. “That is what made this situation special. The owners gave him a chance to fight.”

The Jacksons, who own about 70 racehorses, broodmares and yearlings and operate the 190-acre Lael Farm, have been in the horse business for 30 years and never had a horse like Barbaro.

After months of upbeat progress reports, including talk that he might be headed home soon, news came Jan. 10 of a serious setback because of the laminitis.

“I am convinced that if he didn’t have laminitis, he’d be alive,” said McNitt. “Laminitis is tough to overcome. Barbaro was a big horse, that made it almost impossible.”

Barbaro was the winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby, demolishing what was supposed to be one of the toughest fields in years. The six and a half-length winning margin was the largest since 1946, when Assault won by eight lengths and went on to sweep the Triple Crown.

“Barbaro was no Secretariat, but I’d put him in my Top 25,” said Hathaway. “He was an exceptional athlete, but there were many horses before him that were more successful. He was good, but he became more of a star off the track.”

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