Triumph Mixed with Tragedy: The 2008 Kentucky Derby

John MossSenior Analyst IMay 4, 2008

It was a day of celebration for Big Brown and his connections.  His stirring four-and-three-fourths length win in Saturday's Kentucky Derby was one of the most visually impressive Derby wins of recent memory, leaving fans to wonder if this is finally the horse to break the Triple Crown drought.

However, a feeling of sadness outweighed the excitement when the filly Eight Belles collapsed after finishing the race in second place.

She fractured both front ankles, an injury so devastating the track veterinarians had no choice but to euthanize her on the spot.

What led to this surprising breakdown?  It's hard to say.  Even Eight Belles' trainer, Larry Jones, says he has no idea what caused the injury.

"I see no reason for this," said Jones. "It happened a quarter of a mile after the race. If she (Eight Belles) was under a little stress finishing the race, was losing ground and looked like she was in distress, I would have second-guessed myself severely and kicked myself in the pants."

Jones went on to say that, "she [Eight Belles] went into the race the best she's ever gone into any race in her life, she was so calm in the paddock, so confident.

"I know we're probably going to get criticized and second-guessed by somebody who'll come up with the idea she shouldn't have been in there, but it wasn't in the race this happened. She could have done this racing against Shetland ponies.

"All she had to do was pull up and come back and we'd be happy. Unfortunately that just didn't happen."

Just two weeks shy of Barbaro's now famous breakdown during the Preakness Stakes, the last thing horse racing needed was more casualties during its most watched races.

But that's exactly what happened.

Eight Belles' tragedy brings to the forefront the numerous problems facing racing today.  The different surfaces (Polytrack, Cushion Track, Pro-Ride, etc.), doping problems, lack of public interest—among others—are sure to be dissected in the coming days. 

Of these numerous problems facing the Sport of Kings today, the biggest appears to be the apparent change in breeding tactics. 

Horses used to be bred for stamina and strength, not so much for speed and agility, as is the case today.  Consequently, they used to be far sturdier than today's thoroughbreds.

But how do you fix the problem?  Governing the breeding of horses is a tricky task to take on. 

The answer could be to force all tracks to adopt a synthetic surface, which has shown close to a 75 percent reduction in "catastrophic injuries."  Ideally they should all adopt the same surface, though, and this wouldn't be the easiest thing in the world to agree upon.

While they're at it, the amount of racing that takes place on a daily basis needs to be limited.  People come out to the races when it is a "special" event, like the Saratoga and Keeneland meets.

Making this the norm—instead of the exception—could help to bring excitement and public curiosity back to the sport on days other than the first Saturday in May.

As someone who loves the beauty, power, and majesty of the sport, something needs to be done—and quickly. 

I can't handle watching another horse go down in a big race...and we all know the sport itself can't handle it, either.