COINCIDENCE, OR IRONY?
Hill omen seen in tragic
derby finish for filly bet
Girl horse finishes 2nd
but euthanized on track
after breaking 2 ankles
By MIKE BRUNKER
Horse racing editor
Saturday, May 3, 2008
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – “She went out in glory. She went out as a champion.”
That’s how Larry Jones, trainer of Eight Belles, tearfully summed up the freakish accident that claimed the 3-year-old filly’s life a quarter mile past the finish line in the , when she simultaneously broke both her front ankles just seconds after finishing a game second to winner Big Brown.
At a news conference several hours after the accident, a still distraught Jones said he had no explanation for the catastrophic breakdown.
“It was the best she had ever come into a race and she ran the race of her life,” Jones said.
Dr. Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian for the race, said the simultaneous snapping of both front ankles, which occurred as the filly was galloping out after the race, was a freak incident the like of which he had never seen in decades of veterinary practice. Eight Belles was euthanized moments later.
“In my years in racing, I have never seen this happen,” Dr. Bramlage said. “… There was no possible way to save her.”
While such an injury on only one leg might have given her a fighting chance to survive, “She didn’t have a front leg to stand on to be splinted and hauled off in the ambulance, so she was immediately euthanized,” Bramlage said.
Jockey Gabriel Saez, who was thrown when the filly went down, was not injured.
Jones, who a day earlier celebrated winning the Kentucky Oaks with Eight Belles’ stablemate, Proud Spell, said he and the filly’s owner, Richard Porter of ., who races as Fox Hill Farms, had no idea that Eight Belles’ had been hurt as they made their way to the track after watching her gallop out of sight around the turn.
He said it took several minutes to wade through the Derby day crowd. When they got to the track and didn’t see Eight Belles, he said he figured his assistants had already unsaddled her and were taking her to the post-race barn.
Then, he recalled, he saw Saez riding on the back of the pony that NBC Sports broadcaster Donna Brothers used for on-track coverage.
“He was as shook up and I was going to be later,” Jones said. “He just jumped off and gave me a hug and said they put her down.”
Jones said he couldn’t believe his ears. He ran across the track and caught a ride on an equine ambulance to the backstretch, where he was able to examine Eight Belles’ injury. As soon as he saw the extent of the damage, he said he agreed with the decision to put her down.
“It had to be done,” Jones said. “She had no way of being spared.”
He said owner Porter was “taking it hard and second-guessing himself.”
But the trainer defended the decision to run the filly against males for the first time in one of the sport’s most demanding races, saying that the freak injury was not a result of her being overmatched.
“She ran the race of her life. She put it out there,” Jones said. “If she had been under distress finishing and was losing ground, I would really have second-guessed ourselves severely and kicked myself in the pants all the way. But this filly hit the ground running and after the wire was galloping out well.”
Bramlage agreed, noting that fillies and mares compete against male horses regularly with no adverse consequences . “One injury is not an epidemic,” he said. “As bad as it seems right now, it’s one incident.”
The death of the filly moments after she had run a tremendous race to be second to Big Brown cast a pall over the stunning victory.
Rick Dutrow Jr. and , trainer and rider of Big Brown, respectively, extended their regrets to Eight Belles’ connections at their post-race victory conference.
“We love horses; all of us do,” Dutrow said when asked how the incident had affected him. “If you don’t love horses and you’re in this game, get out.”
Steve Sexton, president of Churchill Downs racetrack, issued a statement saying the “entire family extends its deepest sympathy to owners Fox Hill Farms, trainer Larry Jones and jockey Gabriel Saez on the loss of such a brilliant filly. … After watching Eight Belles’ outstanding performance as the second-place finisher in Kentucky Derby 134, It was heartbreaking to see her fatally injured.”
Horse racing’s marquee events have been marred by a series of heart-wrenching disasters since Kentucky Derby winner fractured his right rear leg in the . Despite successful surgery to stabilize the injury, the beloved colt ultimately succumbed to complications of the injury.
Six months later, in the Distaff, Pine Island broke down and was euthanized and Fleet Indian sustained a career-ending injury at Churchill Downs.
In last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, the European champion broke a cannon bone in his right front leg in deep stretch at and had to be put down.
The high-profile accidents have increased pressure on racetracks to try and address the issue of fatal breakdowns in the sport and has given momentum to the adoption of artificial racing surfaces designed to reduce the wear and tear on horses from training and racing.
At least eight major racetracks have installed such surfaces in the past several years, and preliminary evidence suggests that, if properly installed and maintained, they may cut down on fatal injuries.
But Bramlage said that an artificial racing surface would likely have made no difference in Eight Belles’ case.
“I don’t think you can blame the injury on the racetrack or say that the (artificial) track would have prevented it,” he said. “… She was done with the race … and I don’t think the forces on her legs pulling up would be any different on dirt or artificial surface.”
Jones also said that he didn’t place any blame on the track surface, which he said was in excellent condition despite the heavy rains on Friday and overnight.