May 6, 2008

Why does the bell toll for Eight Belles?

Eight Belles: Photo by Phyllis EagleTree Eight Belles is led onto the track for the Kentucky Derby. The filly finished second but broke down after the finish and was humanely destroyed.The demise of the gallant filly Eight Belles, who ran second in the Kentucky Derby but broke down just seconds past the finish line and was euthanized, is the sad story of the 134th Run for the Roses. It’s a story that really bothers racing people — first because they love their horses, but also because on the one day when their sport shines brightest under the Twin Spires at ancient Churchill Downs, tragedy and tears stole the show from greatness and glory. The brilliant triumph of a lightly raced coming champion named Big Brown was lost in the gut-wrenching image of another horse — an innocent animal — lying destroyed on the track, about to be given a lethal injection to save it from further suffering.But maybe something worthwhile will come from such a waste of life. Maybe now, horseracing will step out from behind a stone wall of damage control to hear what its critics are saying: that the animals are too finely bred to withstand the stress of racing, and the reputation of the sport is badly tainted by revelations of the use of prohibited performance-enhancing substances — from bronchial dilators to cobra venom.And maybe, in deference to a filly that lost her life, critics can back off the attack to give racing room to make changes. We should see this as an opportunity to delve deeper into the physiology and genetics of thoroughbred horses.Nobody knows exactly what happened to Eight Belles. The trainer says his horse encountered no problem during the race and seemed to be pulling up fine. The jockey said he felt something go wrong after the finish. A veterinarian said he’d never seen two front ankles simultaneously shattered while a horse was pulling up. A losing trainer blamed the track. Others agreed the track surface had nothing to do with it. The owner never mentioned the millions of dollars of future racing and breeding revenue he lost. A sports columnist was concerned about the fragility of today’s thoroughbred. True horse-lovers simply felt bad for the horse. And the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals want the jockey suspended because they say they know he knew the horse was hurt during the race.First of all, the PETA stuff is ridiculous. But as for what really happened to Eight Belles, that is still to be determined.I was on the on the racetrack near the finish, and when Big Brown sailed by, Eight Belles was right behind, under no pressure from her rider, who was finishing out the race with second place secured.But a few moments later the big horse ambulance rumbled by, and everyone knew something bad had happened out of view.Some minutes later, I ran into a trainer whose opinion I greatly respect. He asked, “Do you know what happened to that filly? It looked like she had a heart attack or something, and crushed her ankles as she went down.”And that might be what happened.We expect authorities will order a thorough autopsy and an exhaustive toxicological examination. The autopsy should show if some traumatic physiological event occurred before Eight Belles collapsed. And maybe why.The important thing now is for racing to get it right. Find out what really happened to Eight Belles. Racing people, and people just looking in on the sport at this moment, deserve that. And so do the horses. Contact the writer at