Five before Midnight

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Location: RiverCity, Inland Empire

Friday, January 05, 2007

Two horses of a different color

Meet Ruffian and Barbaro, two great thoroughbreds born and bred nearly two generatons apart, in the bluegrass and emerald green pastures of Kentucky. Both were the perfect blend of speed and stamina, a marriage of pedigree and spirit. Both were undefeated until the moment their feet landed wrong, twisting their cannon bones until the weakest bone snapped first. What separated them in terms of which one lived, which one died was the temperment they were born with and brought into each race with them, and later into the operating room.

Ruffian was the larger horse with a barrel shaped birth as large as Secretariat's and a stride so fluid her feet appeared to be skimming across the track. The offspring of two speedy if fragile parents, Ruffian first appeared on a race track in the summer months of 1974, and was the butt of "fat" jokes. That was until the gates opened and she sprang out, two lengths between her and her opponants in a matter of strides. By the end, 15 lengths and a track record for 5 1/2 furlongs separated her from the rest of the field. The winning margins would grew longer with each race.

Undefeated as a two-year-old, unbeatable at three, Ruffian did everything that was asked of her, and all you could do was ask, because she was boss. At well over 1000 pounds, it would take more strength than most men had otherwise. So Ruffian pretty much did her own thing which was to take the lead and lengthen it, breaking the hearts of those around her.

And then there was Barbaro, a sleek bay thoroughbred, who came on the scene and won each race, including the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Before he crossed the finish line, the words, triple crown winner, were on everyone's lips.

Barbaro outran his competition, sometimes near the front, sometimes coming from behind in the stretch, with his powerful strides. And he was doing that from the start of the Preakness Stakes, which was the next jewel on the triple crown of horse racing.

Thoroughbred bones break with an audible snap which to some sounds like a gunshot. Ruffian snapped her seismonds in the backstretch as she began to pull away from Foolish Pleasure in a ridiculous battle of the sexes match race between the two race horses. Barbaro's cannon bone broke under the immense torque as it twisted in what is often called a "bad step". The fetlock and the pastern followed, because the cannon bone could no longer absorb the shock, by the time Barbaro was pulled up, there were over 25 fractures just in the pastern bone.

Ruffian and Barbaro had broken down in full flight, and in full flight they stayed as their jockeys struggled to pull them up. Ruffian was the tougher of the two to handle. Barbaro finally stopped after bounding several strides on only three legs.

Both had doctors who through herculean efforts tried to save their limbs and thus their lives. Battling against a brief window of time that nature allowed horses to lie down before ulnar paralysis set in, the veterinarians and in Ruffian's case, an orthopedic surgeon repaired the limbs.

Each minute passed, with painstaking work done to pin bone together, and insert steel plates to give support to the healing bones.

Then they woke the horses up from surgery. Back in 1975, horses were still laid down before they were urged to rise on their feet once they woke up. Thirty years later, the veterinary surgeons would suspend unconscious race horses in water, so that any movement of their legs which mimicked flight would not cause further damage.

It took Ruffian about two and a half minutes to undo all the hardware that had required hours of surgery to fasten her shattered seismonds together. Because, despite all the effort put into rebuilding her leg and restoring her to a livable state, she was still the spirited, determined race horse in full flight that she was before she had broken down. Her leg may have been almost as good as new when healed, but the repairs done to it were not going to be permanent. After she shredded her plaster cast and rebroke her leg bones, the decision was made to put her down.Her body wanted to change so she could live, to adjust to all the new gadgets, but her spirit made that impossible. Once a spirited race horse, always one.

On the other hand, Barbaro was a miracle in motion, from the time he woke up from the intial surgery, to the anxious months he spent fighting an even greater challenge, laminitis. He adjusted to his hardware relatively quickly, watched his body flesh out after initially losing weight. He wasn't knocked through a loop with the new training required for him to adjust to his relatively sedetary recuperation. Frustration and resistance would melt into acceptance. And nearly a year after his accident, he is ready to go home soon. His temperment had changed to match his new lifestyle.

Of course, when the cast came off, to be replaced by a sturdy shoe, care would have to be taken to not have to revisit the entire process all over again. Ahead lay a life time of intense vigilance.

For Ruffian, all that were left were hard-won lessons learned from the experience, lessons learned that years later would make all the difference for Barbaro.


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