02/06/2007 12:00AM

Don't cry for Barbaro - get involved


TUCSON, Ariz. - With a million words already logged about America's lost and lamented hero horse, all sympathetic, some saccharin, a few silly, no more are needed here.

Everyone from Jane Smiley to Rush Limbaugh has weighed in at length, and a book is certain to reach the newsstands shortly to capitalize on the nation's grief.

So I will forgo adding more amateur theories about the psychology behind this nationwide mourning, and scratch a few lines instead on the insidious disease that killed Barbaro.

Barbaro has been called heroic, noble, courageous, graceful, determined, regal, understanding, tolerant, appreciative, beautiful, and supremely intelligent. All probably applied, and he was in the hands of a master veterinarian. But he also was stricken with a disease that has resisted cure for centuries. When an injured horse bears weight on an opposing limb to escape pain, the greatest veterinarians are gravely challenged. One of them, Dr. Ric Redden, wrote, "Treating the original injury in successful fashion is one thing, but protecting the other foot from opposing-limb laminitis is quite another. Many cases of acute unilateral lameness develop complicated opposing-limb laminitis within six to eight weeks of injury."

I know. Thirty-five years ago, I - like Gretchen and Roy Jackson - lost a horse to laminitis at New Bolton Center. No one but my partner and I cared, no one but I wrote about it, and no one had any reason to do either. It was a life-altering experience, however, for me, as for the Jacksons and all others who lose beloved animals to this vicious killer.

The horse I lost was a young and highly promising stallion, having sired in his very first crop the fastest Illinois-bred pacing horse until that time. Had he lived, I was assured of the pride and satisfaction of owning a horse who could contribute to the breed, and to my personal enjoyment and welfare.

My horse was no Barbaro, but he was intelligent enough to tolerate treatment for an old ankle injury that, in retrospect, he could have survived without surgery.

I lost not only the horse, but a close human friend and partner as well over my disastrous decision to send the young horse for surgery. My partner was a horseman, who lived with our horse daily, saw him in the stall and field, and knew that he could gallop and cavort without pain. He opposed the operation.

But I, like most of us in our lifetimes, had one of those conversations we all wish had never taken place. I received expert advice from one of the nation's top horsemen that I should send the horse to New Bolton for the operation while the world-renowned Dr. Jacques Jenny, ill with cancer, still was able to do the surgery.

Dr. Jenny was not able. He was dying, and without my knowledge someone else operated.

Perhaps it would have made no difference. Like Barbaro's unfulfilled promise, no one will ever know. Like Barbaro, my horse was recovering, developed laminitis with its excruciating pain, foundered, and was put down.

I was 35 years younger and dumber then, but I learned one humbling lesson. Despite the meteoric advances of science and the increased depth of knowledge and treatment in veterinary medicine in particular, little more is known today about curing laminitis than was known then.

So a thought.

If all those thousands who sent $2 get-well cards or flowers or gifts to the doomed Barbaro in a touching but futile gesture, were now to offer matching gifts for research into laminitis, who knows what benefits might flow? It would be a memorial far more significant than expressions of grief and tears of torment.

And since everyone else seems to know how Barbaro felt about all the attention, I'll try a little anthropomorphism myself.

I think he would like the idea of saving the sentiment, although deeply appreciated, and far prefer contributions to find a way to stop the equine carnage of the disease that killed him. If you agree, there are two organizations in America that can help. One is the Animal Health Foundation, 3615 Bassett Road, Pacific, MO, 63069 whose sole mission is research on laminitis. Go to www.ahf-laminitis.org for information. The Grayson Foundation in Lexington, Ky., which handles equine medical research, has sponsored 15 projects that touched, directly or indirectly, on laminitis, to the tune of more than $1 million. Its address is 821 Corporate Drive, Lexington, KY 40503.

Both do great work. If you really loved Barbaro, let either or both of these groups know. They can help stop a replay of this equine disaster.