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For horse racing, death has no easy answers

May 06, 2008|Bill Dwyre

On the Monday after, when it should have been just the opposite, the sport of horse racing was riding low in the saddle.

Saturday, at the grotto of the sport, a star named Big Brown was born into public consciousness by storming down the homestretch, under the twin spires of Churchill Downs, and winning the Kentucky Derby in dominating fashion.

It was what racing wanted, needed, lusts after. There hasn't been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, and the projection of such a star seems to be the sport's perceived trampoline to growth.

Big Brown started in the 20th hole, so far from the rail and from access to the shortest trip around the 1 1/4 -mile route that, despite obviously superior talents, many experts figured a win was unlikely. When he powered past the field to finish nearly five lengths in front, racing stood on top of the mountain and shook its fists in joy.

Less than a minute later, the fists unclenched and the joy drained.

Once again, at a key moment, in a high-profile race, a horse had broken down. The story wasn't victory and glory now. It was death.

Eight Belles, a filly who had run against 19 boys and beat all but one of them, collapsed about a quarter of a mile past the finish line. She was almost at full stop when both ankles suddenly fractured, one break piercing the skin and opening up to the likely contamination that brings the decision to put the horse down. Which is what happened.

By Monday, racing was sitting on a folding chair in a windowless room with flood lights glaring down. Instead of celebration, it got inquisition.

The questions came fast and furious, anyway. The answers are more elusive.

What's wrong with thoroughbred breeding that so many great ones break down? Barbaro did so two years ago in the Preakness, then George Washington in last year's Breeders' Cup. And who can forget, no matter the passage of time, the agony of Ruffian and Go For Wand, limbs dangling grotesquely?

Should fillies be allowed to race against colts? Is there a gender-related physical flaw?

Is the pressure of a Triple Crown, with the three most important races of their lives spread over only five weeks, simply too much physically for a 3-year-old to handle?

And what about jockeys whipping horses down the stretch?

Nicole Matthews, a spokeswoman for PETA, the animal rights group, went on ESPN radio to label racing "a dirty, greedy money game." She also characterized jockey Gabriel Saez's stick work down the stretch on Eight Belles as "vicious whipping" and called for his suspension.

The lines were drawn and racing, once again, was forced into a mode best described as emotionally sad and steadfastly unapologetic.

Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, who now teaches apprentices in Kentucky, said, "I saw it and my heart went into my mouth." He said that to blame Saez for any wrongdoing was "the most ludicrous thing I have ever heard."

Mike Smith, who rode Gayego to a 17th-place finish and was galloping out no more than 50 yards behind Eight Belles when she collapsed, said, "Larry Jones [Eight Belles trainer] loved that horse like she was his daughter." On the issue of Saez's whipping, Smith said, "This was his best horse ever. He was just doing his job. There's no need to crucify him. He's crucifying himself enough right now."

D. Wayne Lukas, Hall of Fame trainer, quartered in Louisville, Ky., said, "We don't need this exposure, especially on our biggest days." Lukas, who won the Derby with Winning Colors in 1988, the last filly to do so, said that filly versus colt wasn't the issue. Competitive desire was. "She would have run just as hard and tried just as much if it was a third race on a Wednesday afternoon," he said.

Richard Shapiro, president of the California Horse Racing Board and the man most responsible for the recent controversial conversion of four California tracks to synthetic surfaces that are projected to be safer, called the death of Eight Belles "tragic and horrible." He hastened to add that, even though it happened on the dirt at Churchill, he wants in no way to use it as an I-told-you-so. "We see this over and over again," he said, "and we just need to fix it."

E.W. "Bud" Johnston of Old English Rancho farms near Fresno, a veteran of 51 years in the horse-breeding business, said, "This is very sad to see. It's also very sad to see that the press only wants to concentrate on this death when we just had perhaps the best horse since Seattle Slew win the Derby."

Johnston, who has bred more than 4,000 race winners and more than 200 stakes-winners while having fewer than 10 catastrophic breakdowns, said that 1,000-pound thoroughbreds, carrying 125 pounds and traveling nearly 35 35 mph, strike the ground at an impact level of 5,500 pounds per square inch.

"If the surface doesn't give, you have injuries," he said. "But if it gives too much, you also have injuries."

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