05/25/2006 11:00PM

Hard to place a value on this athlete

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Sabina Louise Pierce/Univ. of Pennsylvania
Dr. Dean Richardson examines Barbaro at the University of Pennsylvania.

WASHINGTON - When Barbaro arrived at a veterinary hospital with his leg shattered, his surgeon acknowledged that he rarely saw injuries so severe. In a remark that was widely quoted, Dr. Dean Richardson said, "The fact is that most horses that suffer this are traditionally put down on a racetrack."

But Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner who was injured in the Preakness, has so much potential value as a stallion that he was worth trying to save.

Many casual fans were surely appalled that a magnificent animal's life or death would reduced to a dollars-and-cents calculation. People in the racing business winced at the remark because it made their sport sound so heartless. Richardson, chief of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, hastened to amend his comments, saying that if Barbaro had been a gelding, with no future economic value, the owners "would definitely have done everything to save this horse's life."

The high-profile case of a Kentucky Derby winner with a broken leg focuses attention on an issue that owners and veterinarians confront every day: When do you try to save a badly injured horse? Economic considerations are part of the answer - but by no means all of it.

Dr. Celeste Kunz, formerly a vet at New York and New Jersey tracks, said that owners with an injured Thoroughbred never asked her, "How much will this cost?" Instead, they want to know: "What's in the best interest of the horse?"

Kunz said: "Horses need to be mobile. Unlike dogs or cats, who don't need four legs, horses have circulatory and gastrointestinal systems that depend on mobility. Usually the decision is black and white: You can tell from experience which cases are hopeless and which have a chance of being successful. The intangible is the temperament of a particular horse."

Some horses can tolerate the stress and pain of an injury better than others. Dr. Larry Bramlage, the Lexington, Ky., vet who appeared on NBC's telecast of the Preakness, agreed that there are many cases when owners make decisions about horses' future on the basis of sentiment rather than money. But he urges owners to think hard about the choices, because the costs can be considerable.

The price of surgery itself is quite reasonable - "a pittance compared to surgery on people," Bramlage said.

A lengthy, complex procedure at a top facility - such as the operation on Barbaro - can cost $7,000 to $10,000. A relatively simple fracture might be repaired for less than $2,000.

But medications swell the size of a vet bill. Horses are treated with many of the same antibiotics used on humans, and they require at least six times the dose. Pharmaceutical companies don't reduce their prices because a drug is being used on animals. At the very minimum, antibiotics for a horse would run $100 a day. But the newest and best antibiotics can cost as much as $1,000 a day for a period of at least two weeks.

Add to these bills the cost of staying in an intensive care unit (around $200 a day), the cost of changing a cast (a procedure requiring general anesthesia) and assorted other charges, a spare-no-expense effort to save a horse such as Barbaro might run as much as $50,000.

Horses who break a leg in competition usually aren't rushed to the operating table, so Bramlage says he urges owners to wait overnight to make a decision dispassionately. He counsels them, "Think about the value of this horse to you." He tries to explain the statistical data about their injuries. He said, "You have to be sure that owners understand a '50-50 chance' means there is a 50 percent chance the operation will fail.

"The residual value of the horse weighs into the decision," he said. "But people make also make these decisions when it makes no economic sense."

Of course, in the case of Barbaro, the "residual value" is immense because of his potential as a stallion. In addition to a near-perfect racing record that includes a runaway Kentucky Derby victory, he possesses all the qualities that breeders value. He has an excellent pedigree (without which he could not be a fashionable stallion), and he had excellent speed (which is more important to breeders than the ability to win at 1 1/4 miles.) Experts say that he would command a $100,000 stud fee to start his career - a price that could soar into the stratosphere if he proved himself a dominant stallion. His value might be reduced if veterinarians suspect that the injury will curtail his workload as a stallion, but at the very least he would be worth $30 million in a syndication deal.

Trying to save Barbaro for a stud career was an obvious decision. But for most owners contemplating the fate of a seriously injured horse, the choice is rarely so easy.

(c) 2006 The Washington Post