Eight Belles still haunts racing (US)

Cross-posted from The Gazette, Schenectady, New York

By MIKE MacADAM | Gazette Reporter | 19 Oct 2008

With the Breeders’ Cup fast approaching, the two big unsolved horse racing mysteries of 2008 remain:

Why did Big Brown bomb in the Belmont Stakes?

Why did Eight Belles break both front legs in the moments after the Kentucky Derby?

Two perfect storms that refuse to be contained in the perfect, tidy boxes we want stories, big and small, to fit into.

Track personnel try to hold down Eight Belles after the 134th Kentucky Derby Saturday, May 3, 2008, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Eight Belles was euthanized after breaking both front ankles following a second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. (AP Photo/Brian Bohannon)
Track personnel try to hold down Eight Belles after the 134th Kentucky Derby Saturday, May 3, 2008, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Eight Belles was euthanized after breaking both front ankles following a second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. (AP Photo/Brian Bohannon)

They were one-two in the Derby, and neither will be at the Breeders’ Cup on Friday and Saturday; beyond that, their stories, of course, diverge sharply.

Eight Belles, an early front-runner for the 3-year-old filly champ­ionship, was a courageous second behind Big Brown in the Derby, but broke down while being slowed up and was euthanized on the track.

Big Brown will enjoy what promises to be a long, lucrative career at stud, but got hurt and had to bow out of a matchup made in heaven against Curlin in the Classic, ironic considering it was the Big Brown camp who repeatedly baited the reluctant Curlin people into running at Santa Anita on its newly installed Pro-Ride synthetic track.

Now Curlin will be the huge fav­orite without his doppelganger, and the debate over who would’ve won will remain just that, a debate. (Personally, I believe Curlin would have ground down Big Brown in the stretch.)

Curlin, The Golden Warrior, winning the Arkansas Derby. Source of photograph unknown.
Curlin, The Golden Warrior, winning the Arkansas Derby. Source of photograph unknown.

As for the Belmont, well, Big Brown:

A. Missed three days of training because of his bad feet

B. Flipped out in the holding barn

C. Had a rough, tiring trip around the first turn

D. Was compromised by a loose shoe

E. Didn’t like the surface at “Big Sandy”

F. All of the above (Jupiter, Saturn, you’re excused and may leave now. Not so fast, Pluto)

At least there’s something to work with here. The Eight Belles mystery, though, just doesn’t add up. Still doesn’t add up.

There are those who want to blame it on generations of inbreeding that produces fragile horses. Maybe that’s valid, but how do you know for sure, in this particular instance, with this horse?

Anyway, Eight Belles was a filly running against males at a mile and a quarter on racing’s biggest stage, so the the animal rights people had plenty to hyperventilate about.

The loudest cries targeted the use and abuse of steroids, but that dog didn’t hunt, in Eight Belles’ case, because a necropsy showed no trace of steroids in her, vindicating trainer Larry Jones.

Still, the blowback from the Eight Belles’ story was ferocious enough to force Jones, the epitome of a genuine horseman, to begin the process of whittling down his prod­igious stable in anticipation of retiring after the 2009 Breeders’ Cup. Jones, who said during the Saratoga meet that he’s still getting hate mail, doesn’t have any horses among the record number of BC pre-entries that were drawn on Tuesday.

In the meantime, horse racing is sputtering toward more stringent medication rules and kinder track conditions with the idea that their sport will be safer and fairer, thus more appealing to the public.

Former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson has been hired to monitor a series of steps designed to make racing in the U.S. less drug-dependent. Whether the Eight Belles story deserves to be the pivot point toward drug reform or not, she could have a more important legacy than Big Brown, no matter how successfully he enhances the gene pool as a sire.

Jones is the kind of person racing needs, but he’ll have to be chalked up as collateral damage while racing moves forward on the back of his dead filly.

That’s it, the end.

Oh, yeah. Note: Eight Belles and Curlin photographs not filed with this story. Source of Eight Belles (c) AP/Brian Bohannon; Curlin, great shot but do not by whom. Added by Tuesday’s Horse. ~ The Editor.

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