• Barbaro's Best Friend: Dr. Dean Richardson '74

    Tuesday, June 13, 2006
    News Type

In front of a record crowd turned out for the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course on May 20, Barbaro, the strapping three-year-old colt who'd just won the Kentucky Derby by an amazing six and a half furlongs, surged out of the starting gate as if the track were an express lane to the Triple Crown.

Seconds later, his right hind leg broke and splayed, and thousands of stunned spectators watched as the dark bay Thoroughbred, delicately pulled up by jockey Edgar Prado, galloped several strides on three legs in a commanding show of athleticism. It probably saved his life; driving the broken leg into the ground could well have killed him.

Wicked smarts. Bold confidence. Fiery athleticism. Enter Dr. Dean Richardson '74, chief of surgery and the Charles W. Raker Professor of Equine Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania's Widener Hospital for Large Animals at New Bolton Center. One of the country's top horse surgeons and an author of most major textbooks on equine fracture repair, Richardson led a team of 10 doctors and nurses through more than four hours of surgery to mend what he called a “catastrophic set of injuries.”

The ankle was dislocated, the cannon bone broken, the sesamoid bone snapped, and the long pastern bone splintered into more than 20 pieces. To put the leg back together, Richardson inserted a 16-hole steel plate across two joints and put 27 screws into bone fragments, some only about a half inch wide. Because the edges of bones that had rubbed together were smooth, rather than jagged pieces that could fit into each other, he grafted bone from the horse's hip to use as fill.

As the bouquets, apples, carrots, religious medals, and emails began pouring in to the Widener Hospital from horse fans across the country, the phones began ringing—the newspapers, sports and news programs, morning talk shows—for Richardson.

“Horse's Surgeon in Limelight” headlined an admiring profile in the Baltimore Sun; “Barbaro's Biggest Break May Be Richardson” crowed the Chicago Sun-Times; and the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story, “The Man Whose Job Is Saving Barbaro,” in which a colleague calls Richardson “a powerful intellectual force” with “magical hands” and a “tremendous ability to recall and integrate information.”

Richardson has remained grounded, emphasizing that despite the apparent success of the operation, there are plenty of risks—infection, failure of the fracture, laminitis in the opposite foot—on the road to recovery. The day after the procedure, he put the odds of recovery at 50 percent; a week later, asked by a reporter at a press conference whether the odds had improved, he quipped, “Yes, they're officially 51 percent.”

Meanwhile, Barbaro, recovering in his air-conditioned stall at New Bolton Center, remains in the news—he was allowed to make a special televised appearance during coverage of the Belmont Stakes on June 10—and continues to feel the love from fans.

So does Richardson.

What's it like to be a celebrity horse surgeon? Is he recognized in the street?

“Yeah, I mean, I went to the Devon Horse Show,” says Richardson on the phone from the hospital, “and a guy in the men's room asked me, ‘How's the horse doing?'”

He laughs. “Barbaro is worth a hell of a lot more than I am! It's just a great story, because nobody wants a great horse to have a tragedy. ”

Lighting out for Velvet Rocks

“The only reason I became a vet is because I went to Dartmouth College,” says Richardson. “I first wanted to be an actor. When I went to sign up for phys ed—there were PE requirements back then—there was a list of options—basketball, football, weightlifting, some others—that I'd already done in high school. There was one thing on the list that I hadn't done: horseback riding. This course was taught by Marilyn Blodgett on her farm out at Velvet Rocks. I took it, and I basically fell in love with horses.”

Blodgett was the prime mover behind what's now the Dartmouth Riding Program. In 1968 the College had the Boots and Saddles Club but no place to ride, and she proposed teaching riding at Velvet Rocks Farm on Trescott Road, where she had just moved with her family. She'd drive her van to campus to pick up the Dartmouth students and take them out to the farm. “Though it wasn't really a farm,” says Blodgett, who now lives in Hanover, “just four acres on one side of the road, and four on the other.”

“Dean had never ridden,” Blodgett recalls, “and he loved it. I mean, he came up to the farm every day. Within a week, he was able to walk, trot, and canter, and in no time I got him jumping. He was a well-balanced human being. Often all I told him was, ‘Keep your hands light!'”

“The Dartmouth students had a tendency to be fairly aggressive,” she notes. “They weren't afraid of anything.”

Soon a competitive rider, Richardson became a member of the Hanover Pony Club—“the best you can get,” says Blodgett—and helped run the riding course. In his junior year, he moved into the farmhouse with Blodgett's son Peter '74, another Dartmouth student, and two young women. “There are no bad horses, only bad riders,” read the sign on the barn. “We took care of 18 horses and had a great time,” recalls Peter. “Dean was funny, he was playful, and he loved to ride.”

You couldn't run such an operation today, says Marilyn Blodgett. “Back then, eventing—competing in dressage, cross-country, and stadium events—was just starting, and you could buy a horse for two hundred dollars. It was a lucky time.”

Not Afraid to Fail

Today Richardson regularly performs surgery on horses worth many millions. He hopes the attention paid to Barbaro will showcase how far his profession has come in recent years.

“For sure, it's always good when people can see how much other people care about their animals and do the right thing for them,” he says. “And see that there are ways of saving horses, if they give it a go. Sometimes, people just don't know what can be done.

“Ten or twenty years ago, a case like this would've been likely to fail. Today the reality is, Barbaro is just one horse. He's an elite athlete, and I couldn't ask him to be a better patient. If you're a horse lover, and I am, he's a pretty spectacular horse. But we see a lot of them come through here. We—the profession—now do major surgeries on horses with catastrophic injuries all the time.

“So I'm hoping this recognition brings good things for my profession, school, and hospital, and for the racing industry.”

Richardson has been lauded as courageous in taking such a high-profile case, but “it's not a courageous act to do your job,” he insists. “Yes, it would've been easy to put him down right on the track. If we fail, it'll be tough. I can take the heat—I've failed lots. Isn't it basically the nature of human endeavor that you get better through failure?—but nobody would feel worse than I'd feel. At the same time, I know we've done everything possible that we can do.”