07/13/2006 12:00AM

Barbaro's chances to live labeled 'poor' by doctor

Barbaro's chances of survival have "significantly diminished," according to Dr. Dean Richardson, the chief of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center.

Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner who fractured his right hind leg in the Preakness Stakes on May 20, has developed the serious hoof illness laminitis in his left rear leg, and his chances of survival have "significantly diminished," Dr. Dean Richardson, the chief of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, said at a press conference Thursday morning in Kennett Square, Pa.

Asked about Barbaro's chances of survival, Richardson said, "Poor."

"It's very guarded at this point," he said, "but it isn't unheard of" that Barbaro could survive, though the process is now far more complicated and lengthy.

"It's a longshot. I'm not going to sugar-coat it," Richardson said.

"As long as the horse is not suffering, we are going to continue to try," Richardson said. "If we can't keep him comfortable, we're not going to continue."

Richardson said that Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, have made it clear "their only concern is his comfort."

"We're going to go on as long as we can come in every day and be convinced that day and the next he will be acceptably comfortable," Richardson said. "This is a very bad situation right now for the Jacksons. It's hard for us, much more for them. If we quit now, people are going to say we quit too early. If we quit later, people are going to say we did it too late. There are a lot of people involved, and they all care only about his well-being.

"If this stops working, we're going to quit on him, simple as that."

Richardson called the case of laminitis "acute."

"It's as bad a case of laminitis as you could have," Richardson said.

Richardson said Barbaro is under "an intensive pain-management regimen" to keep him comfortable. He would not go into specifics about the pain management, but at one point referred to an epidural.

Laminitis occurs when the soft laminae that connects the coffin bone to the hoof wall is damaged, causing the bone and hoof to separate. "It's exquisitely painful," Richardson said.

As is apparently the case with Barbaro, laminitis often develops when a horse bears weight on a previously sound limb in order to compensate for an injury to the opposing limb. Laminitis is the disease that felled 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat in 1989.

Because of Barbaro's laminitis, a surgical procedure - a partial hoof-wall resection - was performed on Barbaro's left hind hoof on Wednesday, Richardson said. He said only 20 percent of the hoof wall was attached to the coffin bone. Richardson said Barbaro now has a cast with foam padding on the left rear hoof.

Richardson said it would take many months for Barbaro to grow a new hoof wall.

"We're talking months and months and months," Richardson said. If Barbaro somehow pulls through this, "five to six months would be a rapid recovery," Richardson said.

Barbaro is spending part of the day in a sling to help him when he shifts weight, Richardson said.

"He's not a limp noodle," Richardson said. "It's a way of giving him some relief."

He said Barbaro has no problems with either of his front hooves, and said on Thursday that the "stability of his right hind leg is good."

Richardson said Barbaro was still eating well and nickers when attendants tend to him.

"I don't want anyone to think this is Terry Schiavo," Richardson said, referring to the Florida woman whose brain-damaged condition was a cause celebre last year. "He's able to get up and bear weight. He's looking bright.

"We're not torturing this horse. No vet out there wants to inflict pain. We're trying to save a life.

"We will try all reasonable avenues. We're not doing anything outrageously experimental. We're doing things that are scientifically reasonable."

Barbaro, trained by Michael Matz, won his first six races, including the Derby, in which he romped by 6 1/2 lengths over 19 rivals, leading many to believe that Barbaro would become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

Barbaro initially was injured a furlong into the Preakness, when he fractured three bones in and around the ankle of his right-hind leg. He was transported the night of the race to New Bolton, and was operated on the next day, with a plate and 27 screws inserted in an effort to fuse the damaged joint.

From the start, Richardson has been soberly realistic about the hurdles facing Barbaro. Even during the initial stages of this emotional saga, when Barbaro came through his first surgery so well, Richardson said that potentially life-threatening problems could arise at any time.

Barbaro had relatively smooth sailing through the first six weeks of his recuperation. But in the past two weeks, he needed several cast changes and surgeries to his right hind leg, then developed laminitis in his left rear leg after having an abscess there days earlier.

"Two weeks ago, I really thought he was going to make it," Richardson said. "Today, I am not as confident."