By Roger O’Neil Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/4/2007 6:36:06 PM ET 2007-05-04T22:36:06

“He oozed class, this horse. Every part of him," says orthopedic surgeon Dean Richardson of Barbaro. "When you see a horse like this, you recognize a really great individual."

Barbaro was Richardson's most challenging case in a 30-year career. But fixing the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner’s fractures would prove easier than keeping in check the complications every horse person fears.

Like cancer, laminitis is an insidious disease that no horse, no matter his stature, no farm, despite its reputation, is immune from. One equine researcher estimates 15 percent of all horses at one time or another will suffer from laminitis. There's treatment but no cure for the painful separation of a horse's cushioning hooves from its leg bones.

Through 10 operations over nine months, Richardson's team at the University of Pennsylvania's new Bolton Center used every tool in their medical bag. From cutting-edge metal plates to special slings, even new pain therapy.

“The techniques that we use for pain management, we didn't think about using five or six years ago,” Richardson says.

He spent every day with the thoroughbred, tending to medical and psychological needs. And it became a valuable lesson to all vets.

"Richardson sent a challenge out to everyone else," says Dr. Gregory Ferraro, a veterinarian with University of California, Davis Center for Equine Health. "Here's what we can do, here's where we need to go, and can you step up to the plate with me and dedicate yourself to do that?"

Barbaro's owners did — with a $3 million endowment for equine research. Another million is being raised.

Meanwhile, Stall 10 in Barn 42 at Churchill Downs is empty this year, but all of the thoroughbreds in Saturday's Kentucky Derby will have a better chance of surviving the dangers of racing because of one horse and one doctor who together rewrote the rules of care for those who run for roses.

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