A Year After Barbaro—Dean Richardson's Story

Feb 12, 2008 - 10:00 PM

Barbaro’s chief veterinarian recalls his time with the late Kentucky Derby winner and what it’s meant.

Celebrity doesn’t often visit the world of equine veterinary medicine, and when it does, the real star of the show is the four-legged patient. But in this high-speed world of YouTube and two-minute news cycles, one telegenic veterinarian became as much a household name as the Kentucky Derby winner he was treating.

And Dean Richardson, who had once harbored dreams of becoming an actor, was ready for his close-up.

Sadly, the inspirational saga that ran for the better part of 2006 and stretched into early 2007 ended with the loss of Richardson’s co-star. Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner who was perhaps braver in the battle for his life than he had ever been as an undefeated race horse, ultimately was euthanized on Jan. 29, 2007, slightly more than a year ago, and Richardson was left with memories of what might have been.

And what might have been done differently.

For eight months, from the day after the colt’s catastrophic breakdown in the 2006 Preakness Stakes (Md.) until his death from incurable laminitis, Richardson had been much more than Barbaro’s chief veterinarian. He’d been the colt’s spokesman, his guardian and his would-be savior. Through it all, Barbaro soldiered on, weathering the bad days and seemingly grateful for the smallest of kindnesses.

The poster-sized sympathy card that once hung near the main entrance of the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square is gone now. Many of Barbaro’s fans made the trek to New Bolton just to sign the card in the hours after his death. The sentiments ranged from the poetic (“You ran the race of greatness, and you won by a mile,” wrote Mike and Nancy Mulheim) to heartrending (“I’m hopeing your well in heven, Love, Amanda.”)

The lone reminder of Barbaro’s eight months at New Bolton is a portrait by the artist Robert Clark hanging in the reception area. The painting commemorates Barbaro’s finest hour, or, rather, his finest two minutes: the rousing 6 1⁄2-length Kentucky Derby win that instantly created a Triple Crown buzz among horse racing insiders.

Though he has been gone for a year, Barbaro’s fighting spirit lives on at New Bolton. The Barbaro Fund has raised more than $1.3 million, with proceeds going toward expansion of the George D. Widener Large Animal Hospital. A separate fund has raised $2.7 million for laminitis research.

Richardson, 52, has resumed his regular routine as the chief of large animal surgery and the Charles W. Raker Professor of Equine Surgery. Richardson arrived at New Bolton in 1979 as an intern after graduating from Ohio State University Veterinary School; some 27 years later he’s renowned as one of the leading large animal orthopedic surgeons in the world. In addition to orthopedics, Richardson’s specialties include the research of joint disease and the molecular biology of cartilage.

Richardson’s wife, Laura, is a small animal veterinarian, and their son, Alec, graduated last year from the University of Pennsylvania. The family owns four horses (including three ex-race horses), and Laura rides her Trakehner-Thoroughbred with Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds (Pa.).

Doing Great Things

Richardson’s upbringing hardly foreshadowed his vocation. His father was a Navy captain and doctor specializing in internal medicine. The family had dogs and cats, but Richardson had never ridden a horse until his freshman year at Dartmouth (N.H.), when he picked riding as his physical education elective.

“I’d played football and other sports in high school, so I wanted to try something different,” said Richardson, who enrolled at Dartmouth with plans to major in theater.

Richardson’s impetuous choice was to have an impact on his entire life. By his own admission, he became “addicted to horses,” and was instrumental in founding a Pony Club chapter at riding instructor Marilyn Blodgett’s farm.

Combined training became Richardson’s passion, and he bought an off-the-track Thoroughbred mare named MGM to compete. Two years after taking his first lesson, Richardson was competing at the intermediate level at such lofty locales as Radnor (Pa.) and the Quebec Championships and riding with Beth Perkins at her family’s Huntington Farm in South Strafford, Vt.

Denny Emerson, international eventer and coach, met Richardson when the future veterinarian was working at Huntington. “He was very popular, just a really nice guy,” Emerson said. “Everyone liked Dean, and everyone expected him to go on and do great things. And it all transpired.”

By the time he graduated from Dartmouth in 1974, Richardson was clear about his life’s ambition. “Science and working with horses was more my forte,” he said. “And the truth is, I just wasn’t a very good actor.”

After graduation, Richardson took a job in Southern Pines, N.C., working as a vet tech in Dr. Fred McCashin’s equine clinic. While Richardson’s duties included the standard handling of horses and assisting in surgeries, McCashin remembered Richardson often pitched in to do landscaping and cleanup as well.

“He would assist with a surgery and then go outside and plant bushes,” said McCashin, who still has a practice in Southern Pines. “He was a really good-humored guy. When I first met him he was kind of a hippie with his long hair and scraggly clothes. But I recognized early on that he was a pretty bright guy who could take basic science principles and apply them to veterinary medicine.”

Richardson had taken MGM to Southern Pines with him but soon found he had little time for riding. McCashin laughed as he recalled one incident where the  spirited mare dumped Richardson near the clinic entrance and ran back to the barn on her own.

“Another time he wanted to pull her mane,” McCashin said. “We had just fed her, and when he took her away to do it she colicked. These were the days before we knew about ulcers and that kind of thing.”

In The Spotlight

Richardson has performed surgery on other high-profile equine patients, including the ageless McDynamo, who captured his fifth Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase last year at age 10. But, certainly, nothing could have prepared him for the media frenzy surrounding Barbaro.

Richardson watched the 2006 Preakness on TV in Loxahatchee, Fla., at the clinic of his good friend and fellow equine surgeon Byron Reid. The two veterinarians had just finished an exhaustive urinary procedure, and both were looking forward to seeing if Barbaro could cap his Kentucky Derby victory two weeks earlier with the second jewel in racing’s Triple Crown.

“Right away I could tell it was serious,” Richardson said of watching Barbaro stagger to a stop only 100 yards out of the starting gate at Pimlico. “I thought it might be a condylar fracture. Whatever it was, I knew he was probably going to be coming to us [at New Bolton].”

Barbaro’s Lasting Legacy

Pfizer Animal Health and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association joined forces to help fund laminitis research through the NTRA Charities’ Barbaro Memorial Fund. The partnership’s aim is to increase awareness of the Fund across the horse industry and encourage further support of research into laminitis prevention and treatment.

Owners, trainers, and horse enthusiasts can contribute directly to the work of the Barbaro Memorial Fund online at www.Riding withBarbaro.org. Riding with Barbaro awareness bracelets will be available as part of select display promotions.

“Laminitis is a potentially devastating disease that affects horses at all levels of equine sports and across disciplines—from great Thor-oughbred champions like Barbaro, right on to recreational horses loved by their  riders and owners,” said Kristin Ruff, marketing manager, U.S. equine business, at Pfizer Animal Health. “We wanted to help raise awareness of the Fund’s mission and encourage all kinds of horse people to donate what they can toward finding a cure.”

Richardson was right. Because of its close proximity to Pimlico Racecourse, New Bolton is the first post-injury stop for many injured race horses. Halory Hunter, winner of the 1998 Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes (Ky.), was sent to New Bolton for surgery after breaking his left front ankle in a workout before that year’s Preakness.

Within 20 minutes of Barbaro’s breakdown, Richardson was studying radiographs of the colt’s severely injured right hind leg, thanks to the Internet and to Richardson’s colleague Dr. Scott Palmer, who took the
X-rays at Pimlico.

It was far worse than Richardson anticipated: a broken cannon bone above the ankle, broken sesamoid behind the ankle and a broken long pastern below the ankle. The fetlock joint was dislocated, and the pastern was shattered in more than 20 pieces.

“You can’t know exactly how much damage to the blood supply there is,” Richardson said. “But because Edgar [jockey Prado] had pulled him up so quickly and because they splinted him immediately I was hoping the soft tissue would be in good enough shape that we could take a crack at fixing it.”

Richardson took a flight back to Pennsylvania early the next morning. Though Barbaro trained just a few miles down the road at Fair Hill Training Center (Md.), Richardson had never seen the bay colt in person. Richardson had a good working relationship with Barbaro’s trainer, Michael Matz, and with owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson. Dr. Kathy Anderson, who treated Matz’s horses, was a close friend of Richardson’s.

“He had been a very, very sound horse,” Richardson said. “I feel quite confident that his injury was the result of a tragic misstep.”
 
Barbaro had arrived from Baltimore the night before, and Richardson had his first look at the colt at around 10 a.m.

“The thing that struck me was how calm and well-adjusted he was,” Richardson said. “He was very lame; he couldn’t bear any weight on that right hind foot. But he wasn’t frantic about it.” Richardson smiled. “And of course, he was a gorgeous horse,” he added. “He really was.”

During the five-hour surgery, Richardson—assisted by three residents and threeanesthesiologists– inserted a titanium plate and 27 screws into Barbaro’s splintered leg. The media provided hourly updates, culminating that night with the happy news that Barbaro had awoken from anesthesia in New Bolton’s recovery pool and was resting in his stall, his surgically repaired leg encased in a fiberglass cast.

“So many people wanted answers right away,” Richardson remembered. “For me, it was all about being focused on the patient.”

Barbaro’s team—Richardson, Matz and the Jacksons—had agreed that Richardson would be the group’s media representative.

“It was one of the key decisions that we made,” Richardson said. “I knew it was going to be a lot of work, and that turned out to be an understatement. I didn’t anticipate months and months of press.”

The Jacksons, hands-on owners with all of their horses, deferred to Richardson on all matters concerning Barbaro. Gretchen Jackson visited Barbaro twice a day; Matz, a former show jumping rider who had helped the United States win a team silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, stopped by every morning after training hours at Fair Hill.

“Every discipline has people who are really knowledgeable and sensitive, and others who are really mechanical and not tuned in to their horses,” Richardson said. “Some people want to learn about the science of an animal; others don’t. As a veterinarian, it’s easier to deal with someone who has an appreciation for the science.”

Barbaro’s early progress was thwarted by the always-dreaded laminitis, which had developed in his left hind foot. He battled through it and was soon able to enjoy short periods of hand grazing outside the clinic with Richardson. Yet even through the many celebratory days that lasted through December, Richardson never allowed himself to speak like a man who thought the colt’s recovery was inevitable.

McCashin remembered watching Richardson during one of his many televised press conferences detailing Barbaro’s progress.

“He looked exhausted,” McCashin said. “Can you imagine what that must have been like for a vet, to have to tend to the most famous equine patient in the world and then report back not just to the owners but to all of his fans? There isn’t any class in vet school to prepare you for that.”

Richardson agreed. “But being a veterinarian actually demands explaining medical facts all the time,” he said. “I also have a lot of experience with public speaking so that part of the job was not too onerous.”

An unabashed animal lover, Richardson admitted he felt a special attachment to Barbaro, primarily because of all they went through together.

“It is pretty easy to get attached to those you see for months,” Richardson said. “I’ve had strong personal feelings toward nearly all the horses that I have had in my care with chronic problems.”

Richardson and the Jacksons were lauded on numerous occasions by the racing industry for their willingness to share the colt’s progress with his concerned fans. Richardson was named the 2006 Big Sport of Turfdom by the Turf Publicists of America, and he shared the Joe Palmer Award for meritorious service to racing with the staff at New Bolton.

“It [receiving awards] is difficult on many levels,” Richardson said, “and I emphasized that while he was alive. I hope the praise was based on the effort because I knew there was a chance we would eventually fail.”

By January, the “house of cards” that Richardson often alluded to when describing Barbaro’s condition was beginning to topple. The laminitis had returned to his left hind foot with a vengeance and had also attacked his front feet. On Jan. 29, Barbaro’s team decided that he’d been through enough, and they made the decision to let him go.

The weekend after Barbaro’s death, Richardson “just got out of town for a couple of days.” When he returned, he was struck by how quiet the clinic seemed.

Like any good surgeon, Richardson has replayed the eight months of Barbaro’s convalescence over and over in his mind. “Eight months amounted to 20 percent of his life, and of that 20 percent most of those were good days,” he said. “But, the patient died. So, I failed.”

The experience with Barbaro has not soured Richardson on racing. “I’ve owned a few race horses, and like most people, I’ve lost money on each and every one of them,” he said. “I’d love to have a really good race horse. It’s a thrill to watch your own horse run.”

Barbaro’s legacy will likely be the impact he’s had on promoting research into the causes and treatments of injuries such as his. He leaves his mark not with his progeny but with the attention he brings to the prevention and repair of equine injuries and laminitis research.

 Last February, the Jacksons donated $3 million to New Bolton for an endowment in equine-disease research. The endowed chair is named for Barbaro’s team captain: Dr. Dean Richardson.

Category: Veterinary
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