Laura Hillenbrand, author of the best-seller "Seabiscuit," spoke with ABC NewsNow about Barbaro's injury, his great Kentucky Derby run, his injury and his place in thoroughbred racing history. Here is a complete transcript of what she said:
After I stopped screaming, I was absolutely devastated, I thought the chances that they would even try to save him were very, very slim. I have to say, when I saw him win the Kentucky Derby I was crying because Barbaro was demonstrating all that racing has to offer, and when I saw the Preakness I was crying because he was demonstrating all that can be taken away. It was really devastating to see him in such pain, in such distress.
He really embodies everything ... I thought he would be a Triple Crown winner. I thought his Derby was one of the greatest ever, and to see such a sound horse, so well-managed, end up like this right at the start of the race, it was stunning, it hasn't sunk in yet.
I think everybody in America loves horses to some extent. They are very tied up with our history and the Kentucky Derby becomes the icon of horses in America.
And his Derby win was very heavily covered because it was so emphatic, and it was so easy and beautiful and effortless, and I think we all had good reason to believe this was a Triple Crown winner we were looking at. We've been waiting a long, long time, and to see this beautiful creature stricken in the middle of the racetrack, its something I think grabs everyone's heart, and everyone in America is pulling for him right now.
I think this horse was a story capturing everyone's heart. The trainer had a wonderful story himself, he had rescued three kids from a plane crash, and the horse was such a gorgeous creature, and unbeaten. Everyone can be attracted by that kind of story -- the unbeaten horse and, boy he looked like the horse for the ages.
He's got it all, he had the pedigree, the beauty, the great trainer. He was good right out of the box. He was never beaten until Saturday. He really, he had it all, he was the glamour boy of the sport.
The Kentucky Derby is such a difficult test because it requires a horse to have so many elements of greatness in them, they have to have speed and stamina and courage and daring and maneuverability.
They've got to be able to do a lot all at once, in two minutes, and you've got to do it in front of 150,000 hysterical people, and this horse had it all, he did it so effortlessly, I don't think, I'm not sure about this, I don't think any horse has won the Derby without being urged -- he was not urged. He really, he had it all and, and I think he was one of the greatest Derby winners in history.
He was my pick to win the Derby, yeah, it was a very tough race, there was a lot of very, very good horses in the field, but when I actually looked at the numbers and handicaps and looked at the films, this horse stood out to me as the one that was going to do it.
There's has been a lot of speculation about whether or not him breaking out of the gate early and coming back to break again did injure him. He had a veterinarian watching him every step of the way, and they are required to go over any horse that breaks through the gate early to make sure they weren't injured in the process.
There was a veterinarian walking behind him as he was walking back to the gate to make sure his gait was OK. The vet was looking right at that leg that a moment [later] was going to break down, and saw nothing.
I thought his gait looked perfect. The jockey was feeling for any problems -- even he felt nothing. I think it was an event that happened right there in the middle of the homestretch and nothing adding to it before hand.
Boy, breakdowns in horses are a complicated thing and a lot of times you can't figure out why it happened. A horse seems to be moving perfectly as he did. He looked to me as just gliding along, when he suddenly broke his leg and he wasn't doing anything strange and nobody kicked him and it was very odd.
Some research has shown that some of these injuries are a result of something cumulative, something that has been there maybe weeks or even months, a very, very tiny hairline fracture that causes no pain, that ... no vet would notice, you might not even see on an X-ray, and under the stress of racing it can open up. It's a rarity and speculation, but perhaps that's what happened, but we don't know.
I think any elite athlete is by nature pushing the structural limits of his frame, and you see in every top sport, you see serious injuries. You'll see the torn ACL in football, you'll see the blown-out knee in basketball, in track and field the Achilles will go.
The difference in horses -- when they incur those injuries, they may be going more than 40 miles a hour and they're a half-ton animal. It's like stopping a train -- they need a lot of space, sometimes a 16th of a mile to slow down. You can see that with Barbaro. He was trying to stop, the rider was trying to stop him, but it just takes a lot of space and in that space you are doing more and more and more damage.
I think most of the time, the vast majority of the time a horse has an injury this severe, people aren't going to try [to save it]. The odds are just so very long, but the horse was initially -- right after the injury -- behaving so well, he was allowing them to work with him. I think they probably felt a pulse in the foot, which meant the circulation was still there, there was some thread of hope there and the owners were willing to go ahead, and I applaud them for doing so, not that I would condemn anyone for choosing to euthenize a horse on the track, because you don't want to put a horse unnecessarily through suffering. But there was reason enough to believe that there was a chance with this one to go ahead and try with him.
This hospital is a marvel. It has a motorized sling system for the entire place so a horse never has to put his foot in the floor. Once he gets there they hook it up and he can glide from place to place and never put any more stress on that limb.
They will actually take the sling system and motor the horse right into the operating room where the table is tipped on the side, the horse will [be] sidled up to it, and table and horse will tip together.
They also recover horses in swimming pools, which means they will wake up and they are floating on a raft. That is because horses tend to struggle when they come out of anesthesia, and they can un-do all the good that was done in surgery. That's what happened to Ruffian. She injured her leg again waking up and they couldn't go on with it.
The surgery that Barbaro had ... is quite impressive. Horses have to be able to stand on all four limbs when they're injured, they cannot lean too heavily on one leg because they have structure inside their hoofs called laminae, and if too much pressure is put on the good leg, the laminae would swell. Eventually they can cause the bones inside the foot to rotate. It's excruciating. It's not very treatable. It's usually fatal.
So you need to find some way to stabilize the limb, and with Barbaro you're talking about scattered limbs over, over 6 or 7 inches of the bone. So what they do ... they take a big plate, and a whole lot of screws and they screw it all in there, and the weight then passes over the plate and not over the broken bones, and the horse then can put it down and actually walk on the limb right off the operating table, which is what Barbaro was able to do.
And because they press the bones together, the broken bones so tightly, there's very little pain. Oddly, its from rubbing from broken bones that causes pain, so the horse can actually walk and be fairly comfortable, and can stand squarely on the leg, which is crucial for saving its life.
I think it's still a coin toss, as the surgeon said. ... He's gotten through a lot of what was scary. He's gotten through the surgery. They were able to stabilize it, there's a big hurdle.
He was able to wake up without doing any harm to himself -- that was another big one.
But he still has two very scary possibilities that could very well kill him. One would be laminitis, what I was talking about, this swelling of the laminae, and it's deadly and it can strike very quickly and if he's leaning too heavily on the good leg, that can happen and that could kill him.
The other potential problem is infection. This quite frequently happens. Horses have no muscles below their knees or their hocks, the hocks being big joint in the middle of the hind leg. Because of that, there is very little blood flow below the knee and the hock, you require a lot of blood flow to bring the healing element and to bring medication and to fight infection, so infection gets in there, it's very, very hard to stop. You can have gangrene set in, and that's still a possibility.
What is in Barbaro's favor here, and I think this is quite a miracle, is that his skin was not cut in the course of him incurring the injury, which is very rarely true. Usually when the bone starts splintering you will cut the skin.
It all held together, which means there was no racetrack material inside [the] ankle. It was a clean break in that respect, and so he's got that on his side. But ... these are still very big dangers. He is by no means out of the woods and it will be awhile before they know for sure.
I think they both [Seabiscuit and Barbaro] had tremendous hearts. Seabiscuit was quite a fighter on the track, Barbaro was the same way. They both are very impressive physically, the way they can put away their rivals and keep going. And Barbaro is showing the kind of compliant personality, which may save his life, that Seabiscuit had.
They didn't look alike, if you saw them side by side you'd think Seabiscuit was the plow-horse and Barbaro was the Ferrari.
It doesn't surprise me [the outpouring of concern for Barbaro]. Historically that has happened. The great horses have ardent fans. I once went to the stallion barn where they were keeping the great Northern Dancer, who won the Kentucky Derby many decades ago, and he at the time was 28 years old and there were birthday cards for him stuck all over the wall. People were remembering him all those years later.
With Barbaro it's not just that he won the Kentucky Derby -- people are feeling very compassionate, you could not look at the films on Saturday, him rotating that leg in the air obviously in terrible pain, and not feel a lot of compassion. People want so badly for him to pull through. I'm one of them. I can't sleep at night because I'm thinking about him and hoping he's OK.
No I don't think it's a matter of age at all [that caused Barbaro's injury]. Actually, they have found it is better to race horses at 2 even. You need to build the bones and soft tissue, they only get strong through work, and if you baby horses too much they will actually be less sound [than] if you work them hard, so I don't think it was a factor of his age.
We are actually at a moment which might turn into revolution for soundness for horses. There is a new racing surface called polytrack, it is largely artificial -- it contains rubber and wax and all sorts of cushiony substances. It can't freeze, it can't be sloppy, you can have a downpour on it and it will never be sloppy. It is always the same, and it's very spongy to run on.
They installed in at Turnway Park in Kentucky. It's the first track in America to have it. Incidents of catastrophic injuries such as the one Barbaro suffered dropped almost 90 percent in that single meeting. It is a dramatic result and a lot of other tracks are starting to get it, or looking into getting polytrack, and we may end up with most tracks getting polytrack.
People have been very happy with it, and that could make a very big difference ... in these kinds of injuries. I don't know if it would have made any difference for Barbaro in particular, because I don't know what caused his injury, nobody does, but if you're looking at the sport as a whole, this didn't just happen to Barbaro, this does happen to other horses, the incident is about one in 700 starts for each individual horse, that is their risk of having a catastrophic injuries like this, and to see that drop by 90 percent would be a beautiful thing, because even one injury is too many.
That [the long time since there was a Triple Crown winner] is a big issue of contention within racing. We haven't seen a Triple Crown winner in 27 years and we're going to go another year at least, and some of that because the horses that slug out all three are beaten by a fresh horse in the last race.
It happened to Smarty Jones. It's happened to a lot of good ones and that is very frustrating.
It is a very, very rigorous thing, to ask a horse to run three times over a grueling distance over five weeks. It's a lot to ask.
Whether I feel they should change it, I don't know. I think the ultimate accomplishment in the sport should remain very, very difficult to achieve. It maintains its integrity by being hard, hard to do, and only 11 horses have been able do it, and that makes it very, very special.
It is damaging to horses to run them over five weeks, I don't know, it's certainly rigorous. Horses are very spent afterwards. Triple Crown winners often lose their next start after winning the Triple Xrown because they're wiped out. I think it's something the sport will look at, whether they change that, I don't know.
I really do applaud that [they tried to save Barbaro]. I think it was a wonderful thing to do, and I think it was an informed decision. They had the best vets in the world looking at this horse and figuring out whether or not this was possible.
I think had it been something where they were shooting for the moon and it was only going to cause suffering for the horse I think they wouldn't of done it.
Barbaro is actually now quite comfortable. He's flirting with the girls in the intensive care unit. He's a happy horse right now, so he did have to go through some awful times for about 24 hours, but he's OK now, and he's under the best possible care, so I think it was the right move.
Whether or not he is going to be a breeding stallion, they need their hind legs to work well to be a breeding stallion I don't know, but boy I think we would all be happy just to see him just be a pony in someone's backyard if he could live a nice long happy life.
Barbaro, even with the appreviated career he had, will be a reference point for everyone shooting for the Derby. I though his Derby was second only to Secretariat's in its greatness. It really was an extraordinary performance.
I think people are going to look at that and say I want my horse to be able to do that, and Michael Mates taking an unorthodox route in training his horse by not racing for five weeks before the Derby -- everybody thought that was a bad idea, well it really wasn't a bad idea. The horse turned out to be fresh and fit and ready to go, and it will probably change the way people train their horse in the future.
Yeah, we'll be looking for little Barbaros on the track. I hope it works out that way. We have a lot of reason to hope, it has gone as well as possibly could up to this point, but people need to remember, with horses, it's a long, slow, slow process getting through an injury like this and, and he could still lose his life, he is still in the fight of his life, and I hope he wins it.
You go through years where the performances aren't all that interesting, or aren't all that good, you have ordinary years with ordinary horses, and that is fun because the Derby is always good.
You wait for a horse like this, the one, the one that does it differently from everybody else and the one that does it in such grand fashion and so, for me and the amount of time I've been watching this sport -- and its been since I was 6 years old, I'm 39 now -- it made it all the sweeter that I've been through all those years where you know, I hadn't seen an interesting horse. It made the payoff all the greater to see a horse like Barbaro to win the Derby.
If he survives I'll be one of the people up there feeding the carrots over the fence.