11/02/2006 12:00AM

Barbaro may have his cast off next week

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Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro could have his cast removed permanently as early as next week, according to his surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson.

Richardson told reporters at the National Turf Writers Association's annual pre-Breeders' Cup awards dinner Wednesday evening that the colt is progressing well but "still has a long way to go," according to an Associated Press report.

"We took X-rays of his right hind leg today, and we're probably going to be removing his cast permanently next week," Richardson said.

The turf writers honored "Team Barbaro" with the organization's Mr. Fitz Award, which is given to an individual or group showing the spirit of racing.

The evening's honorees included Barbaro; Richardson; the rest of Barbaro's veterinary team at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center equine hospital; the colt's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson; jockey Edgar Prado; trainer Michael Matz; and assistant trainer and exercise rider Peter Brette.

Barbaro shattered his right hind leg in the May 20 Preakness and has been in intensive care at the New Bolton Center ever since. He underwent lengthy surgery on May 21, in which Richardson inserted a locking compression plate and 27 screws to stabilize several severe fractures in the right leg.

In July, Barbaro developed laminitis in his left hind leg. Laminitis, or founder, is a potentially fatal hoof disease that can be brought on by excessive weight-bearing as a horse shifts his weight off of an injured leg and onto a healthy one. In response to the laminitis, Richardson removed an estimated 80 percent of Barbaro's left hoof. The hoof is regrowing slowly but well, Richardson has said.

Richardson said earlier this fall that Barbaro's right hind leg had progressed well enough that the cast could have been removed, but that it was helping to provide extra support as the horse coped with his laminitic left leg.

The New Bolton Clinic, which has issued regular updates on the colt's condition, has scheduled its next update for Nov. 7, unless there is a significant change in Barbaro's condition.