Death of filly Eight Belles mars the Kentucky Derby

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2008:
LOUISVILLE–Eight Belles, 3, a filly trained by Larry Jones
and ridden by jockey Gabriel Saez, 20, charged home second in the
Kentucky Derby on May 3, trailing undefeated Big Brown by four and a
half lengths, but broke both her front ankles seconds later while
“galloping out” around the first turn, and was euthanized where she
“There was no way to save her. She could not stand,”
trainer Larry Jones told Associated Press racing writer Beth Harris.
“Galloping out” is the post-race slowdown of the field.
Racehorses are stopped gradually to avoid pile-ups and injuries.
“She didn’t have a front leg to stand on to be splinted and
hauled off in the ambulance,” said track veterinarian Larry
Bramlage. “In my years in racing, I have never seen this happen at
the end of the race or during the race.”

The injuries to Eight Belles were inevitably compared to the
ankle injury at the start of the Preakness that felled and eventually
caused the death of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. An injury
similar to Barbaro’s ended the racing career of a colt named Chelokee
in an undercard race preliminary to the Kentucky Oaks, the race for
elite fillies held the day before the Kentucky Derby.
“Chelokee,” given only a 50% chance of survival, “was
trained by Barbaro’s trainer Michael Matz. He won five of 10
lifetime starts, including the Barbaro Stakes last May at the
Preakness,” said Associated Press.
Eight Belles sought to become the fourth filly to win the
Kentucky Derby–an event no filly has won since Winning Colors in
1988, and no filly had entered since 1999. “Her owners chose to
keep her out of the Kentucky Oaks,” said Associated Press, “so she
could run with the boys. And run she did.”
“When we passed the wire I stood up,” said jockey Gabriel
Saez, 20, a first-time Derby rider. “She started galloping funny.
I tried to pull her up. That’s when she went down.”
PETA called for Saez to be suspended from racing, but
Kentucky Horse Racing Association executive director Lisa Under-wood
told McMurray that racing stewards found no evidence of wrongdoing by
“This kid made every move the right move,” trainer Jones
told Associated Press writer Jeffrey McMurray. “He did not try to
abuse that horse to make her run faster. He knew he was second best,
that she wasn’t going to catch Big Brown.”
Jones also trained Kentucky Oaks winner Proud Spell.
PETA, the American SPCA, and the Humane Society of the U.S.
all took the opportunity to campaign for changes in horse racing,
including abolishing whipping and running on dirt tracks.
“Jones acknowledged changes could be made to make the sport
safer, although he doubts any would have saved his filly,” wrote
McMurray. “Stewards could, for example, mandate lighter whips or
riding crops, Jones said. However, he said his training program
takes great care to make sure no horse is abused, even in a rush for
the finish.”
Said Jones, “My horses don’t come back from races with welts
on their body.”
Earlier in 2008, McMurray recalled, “Jones petitioned
officials at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas to let him send out a jockey
without a whip. Jones’ petition was accepted despite initial concern
the jockey wouldn’t be able to control the horse.”
“As for the prospect of changing dirt tracks to synthetic
ones,” McMurray continued, “Jones said he supports research on how
that will improve safety. He insisted, however, that the track at
Churchill Downs was not to blame for the loss of Eight Belles.
“Churchill’s track was as close to perfect as it could be,”
Jones said. “The moisture in it was wonderful.”
“Eight Belles was a tragic manifestation of a problem that is more
pronounced every year,” wrote Andrew Breyer of NBC Sports.
“America’s breeding industry is producing increasingly fragile
thoroughbreds,” who “have shorter and shorter racing careers before
going to stud to beget even more fragile offspring.”
“The value of a horse is no longer related to how much he can
win,” agreed veterinarian Bramlage. “It’s related to how likely he
can get you to one of those events. The breed creeps toward a faster
and faster individual, but that individual may be brilliant because
of having a lighter skeleton. We’re inadvertently selecting for the
wrong thing.”

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