Kentucky Derby : Eight Belles- What happened?
by Annamaria Tadlock

“She ran a whale of a race. She ran the race of her life. She apparently got beat by a horse that Mr. Dutrow said was as good as he is."

"These things are our family. We put everything into them that we have and they have given us everything they have. They put their life on the damn line here. And she was glad to do it.” Eight Belles' Trainer, Larry Jones

“In my years in racing, I have never seen this happen,” Dr Bramladge, the vet who examined Eight Belles' two broken legs.

The dark gray filly Eight Belles, ridden by Gabriel Saez ran her best in the Kentucky Derby, finishing second to Big Brown. She was the first filly to run in the Derby in nine years.

But after her gallop slowed, she suddenly collapsed-- laying in the dirt while the ambulances and her stunned jockey surrounded her. She ended up breaking both front legs and was euthanized at the track.

Shortly after crossing the finish line, Saez aid he felt something-- “I tried to get her to stop,” he said. “I tried to get her to stop, but she wouldn’t stop. She just dropped down.”

The vet on duty was Dr. Larry Bramlage. “This was tough enough had it been one (leg), but it happened in both," he said.

When her trainer approached the scene, he saw with horror what had happened and realized that there was no hope. “There was no way to save her. She couldn’t even stand. There was no way to even think about trying to save her.”

Shaken by the incident, Jones couldn't find an explanation for the injury, and the vet too was puzzled.

“And the odd thing is, it happened on the same stride. She just collapsed in front of the outrider, so there was really not any warning.," said the vet. "And she had gone all the way around the turn slowing down.”

New: Autopsy Results
Eight Belles autopsy revealed that the filly's legs were normal and had no existing bone conditions or injuries that would have caused the breakdown. She did not have a heart attack. As most people in the horse world suspected, she tripped on her legs, fracturing one then slamming into the other to catch her weight, fracturing the other.

Her trainer, Jones, said that he believed she stumbled:

"She's bad about stumbling while pulling up," Jones said. "She's doesn't pick her feet up very high. It's one reason she could run very fast and far. She had the perfect motion for being effective and efficient. However, those horses who do that have a tendency to want to stumble."

There is an excellent new piece on inbreeding here: Eight Belles' Breakdown: A Predictable Tragedy

Is anyone at fault? Is there too much criticism?

No one wants to see a racehorse injured, especially not the owners and trainers that put so much time, money, and effort into their horse's care. Racehorses are well cared for to keep them in good condition, but injuries still occur. Many things are done to reduce the risk of injuries-- horse's legs are meticulously cared for, wrapped, rubbed, and horses are carefully conditioned and fed. In the history of racing, many improvements have been made to tracks, tack, and training methods to keep horses healthy. It is in the racehorse industry's best interest if the horses stay sound and healthy.

Horse racing unfortunately gets a lot of criticism because it is broadcast to the non-horse public. Horses are large, dangerous animals that easily injure themselves or the people around them.
Injury and death is a part of life, as any horse owner knows. Horses die playing in their pastures or going on a trail ride. But when something happens in such a public place, many people witness the event and get upset about it, even though there are professionals on-hand at public events that handle situations in the most humane way possible.

To give a perspective, one vet pointed out that more horses will be injured this year walking in a field than will be injured racing on a track. The difference is the publicity that those on the track get, while horses that are injured in daily activities go unnoticed.

Why did she keep running if she was hurt?

No one knows when the injury occurs, but the filly did not start acting like she was in pain until well after the finish. The injury may have occurred at some point when she was slowing down.

When a horse is excited and wants to run, they often don't notice or don't show signs of injuries. This is why horses will sometimes finish a race, only to show up lame after they slow down. This happens in human athletes, too. With a combination of adrenaline, excitement, and intense concentration, you can actually not notice significant injuries until later.

Considering the extremeness of her injuries, it wasn't possible she was running on those broken legs-- they must have fractured after the race was over.

Running too young?
Racehorses are bred and trained to run. But many people feel that racing starts horses too young. The average horse owner would never start a horse younger than two, or compete on a two-year-old! The amount of strain on their legs and bones is too much for their immature bodies to handle safely.

There is a reason they are called colts and fillies instead of stallions and mares-- because they aren't yet adults. If they were given one more year to mature and not raced until they were three, you might see fewer injuries, or at least more long-term soundness in racehorses.

Horses simply are not mature at two. In many sports-- for example, the rodeo sport of barrel racing, horses aren't even entered into competition until they are 4 or 5. Many of these horses are able to compete soundly in to their teens or twenties. Racehorses are retired much earlier, which probably makes long-term usability less of a consideration.

Breed For Speed, Not Stability?

This is a criticism that I'm not sure is valid. Thoroughbreds do have small feet (as do many Quarter Horses), but there are many people with off-the-track Thoroughbreds who are very sound. It also seems that a horse being competed on at the age of two would need to have strong legs to be able to compete well. About 95% of Thoroughbreds trace their ancestry back to the Darley Arabian, born in 1700. This isn't necessarily bad, but seeing more genetic diversity might improve the breed.

Would Polytrack Prevent This?

No one can say, but some people have pointed out that she did not collapse until after the race-- so she may have miss stepped or tripped on herself, making the track irrelevant. The fact that she had two broken legs was very strange, leading some people to believe one leg fractured, and she shifted all her weight onto the other leg and then it too broke. It is just incredibly rare for two legs to break at once.

Synthetic track surfaces are still being tested and professionals are divided as to whether they are better or not. There are also issues as to whether the material is harmful if inhaled by horses.

Was Euthanasia Necessary?

No question. When a horse suffers a broken leg, it is often fatal. Horses are not designed to carry weight on three legs, and having one leg in a cast during the extensive healing time (months to years) is impossible and inhumane. While some racehorse owners go to great expense to attempt to rehabilitate horses-- such as in Barbaro's case-- the fact is when an injury to the leg is very bad, there is no way to treat and save the horse. In the case of Eight Belles, she had shattered both front legs. There was no way to even transport her for treatment, and euthanasia was humane and the only option.



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