01/29/2007 12:00AM

Best care wasn't good enough

Email

Above and beyond his skill as an equine surgeon, it is to the everlasting credit of Dr. Dean Richardson that at no point during the last eight months did he lead anyone to believe that the Barbaro story was going to turn out all right.

Certainly, there were times when Barbaro's condition appeared better than it did the day or the week before. And for the sake of those around him, Richardson sometimes allowed himself to think briefly of the glass as being half full. But as the man who was charged with Barbaro's ultimate welfare - the human who spoke for the horse - Richardson never backed away from the grim truth. Saving Barbaro was always a longshot.

Still, it was a longshot worth betting. Only the hardest of hearts would broach the slightest recrimination for the heroic attempts to save Barbaro's life. When the end came, early Monday morning at the New Bolton Center, it was a result of Richardson and the Barbaro family making good on a promise they made long ago.

"If we couldn't control his discomfort," Richardson said Monday afternoon, "we wouldn't go on."

And so Barbaro becomes racing's Lady Di, worshipped beyond his worldly accomplishments - even though they were substantial - remembered as larger than life even in the face of his mortality. In a snap poll taken of AOL users Monday morning, 71 percent of more than 52,000 respondents indicated they would remember Barbaro as "a survivor," while just 15 percent cited his Kentucky Derby victory as his everlasting imprint.

Horses have gone down in public before. But it was Barbaro, a creature of the modern communications era, who galloped helter-skelter through websites, cable channels, and chat rooms, landing more often than not at the center of mainstream media outlets.

The grief, therefore, is vertically integrated, beginning with those closest to Barbaro - owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, Richardson and his staff, the team of trainer Michael Matz, jockey Edgar Prado - then coursing through the hearts and minds of anyone associated with a racehorse, on to those who are enchanted by the racing game, to the millions of horse lovers, and then spreading to the vast public who responded to Barbaro's plight like no racing story since the days of Ruffian.

Standing just offstage, their heads lowered, are Richardson's colleagues in the veterinary profession. Two of the best were asked to share their thoughts.

"It's a sad day," said Dr. Greg Ferraro, a surgical pioneer and director of the University of California-Davis Center for Equine Health. "This demonstrates that even when people do everything right, and are willing to persevere, you can do a lot. But as perfect as we like to think our work can be, we're not there yet."

"Barbaro had the best shot he possibly could have had," said Dr. Wayne McIllwraith, former president of the AAEP and director of the Orthopedic Research Center at Colorado State University. "He went to a good surgeon who was the most experienced in using the locking screw plate. All his aftercare was excellent. There was nothing missed, and no expense was spared.

"Before Barbaro, the general public did not know that equine orthopedics is just the same as human orthopedics," McIllwraith went on. "We've come a long way in terms of getting fractures reconstructed better, so that they're bearing less weight on the other leg. But laminitis remains a terrible, terrible disease."

Ferraro could not have agreed more.

"It's almost like the easy things have been solved," Ferraro said. "Now we're down to the real hard stuff, and laminitis is a very difficult thing to understand and control. You've got size and weight to deal with in a horse, and that foot jumps up to bite you post-surgically every time you turn around."

The ultimate challenge for the racing industry is not to allow Barbaro's death to be in vain. If this does not light a fire under laminitis research, nothing will. Barbaro may have been the perfect poster child for the need to find solutions, since he was nothing less than the perfect patient.

"Some of the things Barbaro did were amazing," Ferraro noted. "He told them when he wanted to get into the sling and when he wanted to get out. Never fought with them coming out of anesthesia. Cooperated and tried hard no matter what they wanted to do with him. He had such a close relationship with Dean, I guarantee you that when he walked in there early this morning, the horse looked him in the eye and said, 'I've had enough. It's time.' That's when I look at euthanasia as a gift we give them."

Barbaro is at peace now, although he was never really allowed to suffer. Even so, Richardson confessed to second thoughts.

"I'm sure I made mistakes," Richardson said. "That's how you learn."

Ferraro answered that simply, and spoke for many: "He makes you proud to be a veterinarian."