LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- For the second time in a little more than six months, the worst part of horse racing was displayed on a major stage.
Eight Belles, the first filly to run in the Kentucky Derby since 1999, was put down on the track shortly after finishing second Saturday in the 134th running of the Run for the Roses.
After crossing the finish line 4 3/4 lengths behind winner Big Brown, Eight Belles galloped out and was all the way around the first turn toward the top of the backstretch when she suddenly went down on her front knees.
The horse had suffered two compound fractured ankles, a freak injury that is hard to explain. She tried in vain to get back up.
Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian for the Triple Crown races, said that although he had occasionally seen horses break down after a race, he had never seen an injury quite like this one -- where two front ankles broke simultaneously.
“It’s not terribly unheard of for a horse to have some problem bilaterally, but in my years in racing, I’ve never seen this happen at the end of the race or during a race,” he said.
Bramlage said nothing could be done to save the horse. Shortly after the equine ambulance arrived, protective screens were brought out to block the view of what was about to take place and Eight Belles was euthanized.
The scene was reminiscent of what happened at the sport’s last major race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic at New Jersey’s Monmouth Park in October, when two-time European champion George Washington had to be euthanized on the track after suffering a broken cannon bone in his right front leg.
The difference was George Washington’s injury took place going down the home stretch of the race and he was euthanized right in front of the grandstand. Eight Belles’ injury took place around the track well after the race. Most of the crowd of 157,770 was spared of an up-close look.
Meanwhile, viewers at home were left wondering exactly what had happened, as NBC seemed to be caught off guard and, before going off the air, failed to provide many details of what had happened to Eight Belles.
The incident comes two years after Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke his right rear leg in the Preakness and battled for his life for eight months. And it’s another example of the ups and downs of horse racing.
A day earlier, trainer Larry Jones had won the Kentucky Oaks with Proud Spell. On Saturday, he was attempting to be the first trainer to win the Oaks and the Derby on back-to-back days with a filly.
About an hour after the race, a visibly shaken Jones met with media.
Thrilled by her second-place finish, he said he initially was high-fiving people as he made his way down to the track. “We’re thinking to win the Oaks and run second in the Derby with two fillies, we’ve had a remarkable weekend.”
He said he then noticed Kent Desormeaux, Big Brown’s jockey, didn’t look like he had just won a Derby.
“He was a little bit solemn,” Jones said.
After the race, Desormeaux said his horse “showed you his heart, and Eight Belles showed you her life for our enjoyment. I’m deeply sympathetic.”
Jones said he eventually realized it was his horse that was down but didn’t hear the worst had happened until he was informed by jockey Gabriel Saez.
“He said, ‘Mr. Larry, they had to put her down,’ ” Jones said.
Jones couldn’t believe it. “It’s a quarter mile after the race,” he said. “These things don’t happen there.”
Bramlage said there may have been micro-fractures that worsened as the horse cooled down.
Said Jones: “Things happen for a reason, but I see no reason for this. She had just run the race of her life. She went out in glory.”
Jones did not blame the fatal injury on the dirt track, as opposed to a synthetic surface, or anything else.
“It’s just the unfortunate side of this sport you’re sometimes faced with,” he said.
Jones talked about Eight Belles being a part of his family, saying, “I saw her every day.”
At this point he began to choke up.
“I’m heartbroken,” he said.