Eight Belles and the 2008 Kentucky Derby

The Ace ReportCorrespondent IMay 15, 2008

The 134th running of the Kentucky Derby ended in tragedy as Eight Belles, the first filly to run since 1999, broke both front ankles and was subsequently euthanized.

Moments after Big Brown won the race by a little more than four lengths, Eight Belles collapsed while over 15,000 attendees were celebrating the undefeated champion.

It was a relapse into the despair felt when Barbaro succumbed to a fracture in his rear leg during the Preakness just two years ago. At the time, the sentiment was that Barbaro’s fate was a once-in-a-lifetime situation that wouldn’t happen again in a quarter of a century.

The statistics that have been cited support this theory. Two tenths of one percent of all race horses end their lives in this manner. Before Barbaro and Eight Belles, people who tuned in to watch the most famous races that make up the Triple Crown were almost assured of seeing a clean race, sans tragedy.

Now, in just the past three years, there have been four euthanized thoroughbreds in major races. In 2005 at Belmont, Funfair broke a hind leg in the Breeders’ Cup Mile and was euthanized that day. In 2006 Barbaro broke his hind leg at the Preakness. In 2007, two-time European champion George Washington broke down in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Monmouth Park and was euthanized on the scene. And now, we have Eight Belles.

That hardly seems like two tenths of one percent. And this is why there has been a public outcry on a number of fronts in regards to horse racing. The majority of the general public see this as an incomprehensible tragedy, unexpected and without reason.

Many may not sit down to watch the final two legs of the Triple Crown for fear of additional grief, but they aren’t blaming racing as a sport for the fate of Eight Belles.

The media, on the other hand, have decided to use Eight Belles as a soapbox. While there are a number of outlets who have expressed opinions both for and against issues of banning horse racing, punishing the trainers, changing the rules, etc., there have been an exorbitant amount of op-ed pieces lamenting horse racing and exclaiming the atrocities of the sport.

The New York Times was one of the first to hop on the blame wagon and PETA followed by saying that the jockey should be suspended.

There is clearly an issue that needs to be resolved in terms of horses dying in races. However, the masses are quick to jump to the conclusion that these bone breakages are solely the result of the races. The horses broke their ankles after running a race, therefore it must be because of the race. The logic is sustainable if only used in the localized setting of a single race.

However, what has been neglected is the reality that horses break their legs in the wild. In fact, more injuries occur outside of horse racing than occur in the sport. More people see the instances that occur in a high-profile race setting than out in the wild.

While racing itself cannot be blamed for the injuries these horses suffer, racing can improve the environment in which these horses compete. Synthetic surfaces have a significant opportunity to lessen the frequency of injuries as well as the magnitude of those injuries that do occur. However, such improvements must be met with a greater understanding of the sport; more than the general fan and media opportunist can glean from watching three horse races a year.

Eight Belles proved to be more than up to the challenge of "hanging with the boys" and her unfortunate death has created a forum for discussion about ideas, treatment of animals, and how people in general react to tragedy.

“It wasn’t that, it wasn’t the distance, it wasn’t a big bumping match for her, she never got touched,” trainer Larry Jones said. “She passed all those questions…with flying colors. The race was over, all we had to do was pull up, come back and be happy. It just didn’t happen.”