rest in peace, eight belles


from sally jenkins at the washington post:

The camera cut away from her, but it should have stayed on her. Eight Belles had run herself half to death yesterday, and now the vets were finishing the job as she lay on her side, her beautiful figure a black hump on the track. Horses don’t just fall down like that, you thought as NBC flitted away, cowardlike, from the sickening picture to the more appealing image of the Kentucky Derby victor, Big Brown.

There is no turning away from this fact: Eight Belles killed herself finishing second. She ran with the heart of a locomotive, on champagne-glass ankles for the pleasure of the crowd, the sheiks, oilmen, entrepreneurs, old money from the thousand-acre farms, the handicappers, men in bad sport coats with crumpled sheets full of betting hieroglyphics, the julep-swillers and the ladies in hats the size of boats, and the rest of the people who make up thoroughbred racing. There was no mistaking this fact, too, as she made her stretch run, and the apologists will use it to defend the sport in the coming days: She ran to please herself.

But thoroughbred racing is in a moral crisis, and everyone now knows it. Twice since 2006, magnificent animals have suffered catastrophic injuries on live television in Triple Crown races, and there is no explaining that away. Horses are being over-bred and over-raced, until their bodies cannot support their own ambitions, or those of the humans who race them. Barbaro and Eight Belles merely are the most famous horses who have fatally injured themselves. On Friday, a colt named Chelokee, trained by Barbaro’s trainer Michael Matz, dislocated an ankle during an undercard for the Kentucky Oaks and was given a 50 percent chance of survival.

According to several estimates, there are 1.5 career-ending breakdowns for every 1,000 racing starts in the United States. That’s an average of two per day.

Eight Belles collapsed after crossing the finish line, her front ankles broken so severely she could not be taken from the track. “She didn’t have a front leg to stand on to be splinted and hauled off in the ambulance, so she was euthanized,” said Larry Bramlage, the Derby’s veterinarian.

Make no mistake, most of the people in thoroughbred racing love the animals and want them to be healthy. The Keeneland Association hosted a summit on the “Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse” after Barbaro’s breakdown, to urgently consider how to better protect the horses. Synthetic surfaces are one result of the soul-searching.

But the problem is more complex than just surface; it’s pervasive in the sport. Modern thoroughbreds are bred for extreme speed, maybe to the point of endangerment. Thoroughbreds are muscularly more powerful than ever, but their bone skeletons seem to be getting lighter and frail. A Kentucky Derby horse has to run a mile and a quarter on a dirt track around two turns by the age of 3. It is the horse equivalent of asking a college kid to play in the Super Bowl. A racehorse therefore has to be bred for many things at once: strength, speed, size and stamina, and it has to be fast maturing, as well.

Thoroughbred breeding is like trying to make four dials all stop on the same number. How to mate the right stallion to the right mare so as to produce a perfectly weighted, formed, balanced animal? Too often, the makeup of a horse isn’t right. If it’s fast, it’s not strong enough, or if it’s strong, it lacks stamina. Its chest is too big, or its legs are crooked.

Maybe the trouble starts when people try to take the gambling out of gambling. Breeders try to eliminate the unpredictable from the bloodlines — the weak or the ordinary or the unknown. Maybe they are trying to breed too perfectly, down to the smallest technicality in pedigree. Pedigree is just another way to reduce the dauntingly long odds. As if you can beat luck with a checkbook.

“See, here’s the deal,” Nick Zito said once. “The horse don’t know what it costs. He doesn’t know. Owners put the price on horses, okay?”

Part of the trouble is the makeup of thoroughbreds themselves: They are creatures physically at war with their own nature. The heart and lungs are oversize knots of tissue placed in a massive chest, and huge amounts of blood course through legs that are dainty. Anyone who has spent time around a barn understands that horses love to run. They do it for fun. A few years ago, I stood in a field of yearlings in Ocala, Fla., and watched them tear around in circles like children in a playground.

They need to be given the bodies to accommodate their hearts.

“It’s not always the horse with the most class you remember,” trainer Allen Jerkens once said. “It’s the ones who tried hardest all the time even though they weren’t great horses.”

It’s unfortunate that NBC chose to shy away from the breakdown of Eight Belles, because we need a hard look at the real cost to the horses, no matter how upsetting and painful it is to see.

eight belleshad she raced in the “lillies for the fillies“, would she have been hurt anyway? sigh. the wiki has a succinct page describing the history of the kentucky derby, worth taking a peek.


  1. Sarah Evans

    Growing up with horses in rural Colorado, I remember as a child seeing horses lying down, basking in the sun sleeping. Even then there was something disturbing and eerie in the sight, even knowing the horse lying down, even knowing he or she was okay. Yesterday, though, the sight of Eight Belles lying on the track gave that instinctive childhood anxiety a place to settle into my mind and heart forever. For the rest of the evening yesterday my psyche would not shake the image of her beautiful, majestic body reduced to a pitiful, awful, black heap on the track.

    Before the race yesterday, a friend of mine who raises and races horses at Churchhill Downs commented on how delicate and dainty she was, and being at the races on Friday, my friend was not sure why they pulled Eight Belles from the Kentucky Oaks. “Let’s face it, the strongest female is not as strong as the strongest male,” she said. As happens a lot with the death of someone wonderful, conversations in the past seem like Shakespearean foreshadowing in one of his tragedies.

    I am not sure I agree with Sally Jenkins at the Washington Post, that NBC should have focused on the black heap that was Eight Belles at the end of her life. I believe the juxtaposition of her death with the celebration of Big Brown’s team made it clear to viewers the greed and inhumanity that takes over civilized human beings when enough money is involved. That is not to reduce the love of Big Brown’s team down to mere dollars. I do not doubt that they love him as much as any horse has been loved. None the less, the horse-racing business thrives on the extremely rich and glamorous and the sacrifice that horses make for such greed is wrong. The brief images of Eight Belles dead on the track was made even more horrific with the images of the drunken crowd and the awful teenager smacking her gum in front of the camera during the presentation of the trophy. It was clear that even the Governor of Kentucky could not stop long enough in his speech to change one of his last lines, “And what a race we showed them today.”

    While it is true that horses love to run, humans have turned horses’ natural love and instinct into something that is often fatal. There can be regulations and laws that keep the sport safe for horses. For example, limiting the drugs that are given to horses before they race. If horses begin to feel pain, they slow themselves down. Sadly, money would be lost, but that is nothing compared to the loss of the horse. Perhaps eliminating the whip so that the horse is racing herself and the jockey simply guides her with the reins. Such changes could turn the sport back into a sport.

  2. sambycat

    thank you, sarah, for your lovely and considered thoughts. i so appreciate you taking the time to respond. i agree whole heartedly about beshears “run for the roses” speech at the awards ceremony part. certainly he was reading off a teleprompter, and though noone would want to diminish the “win”, the tragedy of the day should have been respectfully acknowledged – i think i read (if it isn’t in one of the tings i linke too) that eight belles was the first death on the track of a horse in the derby. i will assume he is a clueless politican and that the commonwealth of kentucky doesn’t have speech writers on staff on the weekends.

    i remember the first year i lived in lousiville – and if you live there, you know from the day of the oaks till the end of the next week is a long local holiday, a horse was euthanized on the field after injuring itself. there were no trucks and ambulances shown. instead, an eerie – but in a way more honest?? – black, cloth and metal type folding screen was put up around the horse right on the field, and it was killed. one of the people i worked with said they shoot the horses. i have no idea if that is acutally true.

    fortunately, as i said, i thus far didn’t see any of the shots of her lying there and i know what you mean about the sick feeling that gives you.

    all i can keep thinking is that phrase that became a part of my speech after i lived in louisville – bless her heart…

  3. Rebekah

    I think it is a tradgedy that such a beautiful animal so much heart has passed on. Having been around thoroughbreds and working closely with hundreds of different ones I know the ones who do well, like Eight Belles, love what they do. It is obvious to me that her trainer loved her alot and it is apparent she has the best of care, but accidents happen. personally I believe it could have happened in the field. For people to say that it’s horrible to race a horse than they should find themselves questioning every other sport out there and riding in general. In fact horses injur themselves all over the country in every aspect of riding. I agree that we hear more about the horses in horse racing because they are true athletes who give so much more of themselves to what they do. It is also not true that all horses love to run, in fact I know more horses that hate working of any kind. Eight Belles had to love racing or she wouldn’t have come in 2nd to a field of 19 other horses. We as people like to make judgements about an animals feelings when often we know nothing about them.
    Here where i ride we have. when he raced he was winner and he can be a handful when he gets very passionate about what he’s doing whether it’s jumping or racing and despite being a well mannered gelding he can get a bit lost in what he is doing because he loves it so much. For a long time he was not allowed to jump and was forced to be a western pony for a while and it was not something he was happy with. He continued to look for jumps and to try and keep a quicker pace despite how slow we wanted him to go. These thoroughbreds do what they do because they love it. I personally don’t bet very often and had no bets on the Derby. In fact I just loved watching the horses run their heart outs because o the passion they have to win. i think we can learn something from Eight Belles. She gave everything she had for what she was passionate about and we instead of learning what we could do if we had a heart like hers start critisizing the world of racing. I have been in horses all my life, my aunt even owned a retired racer and the more I work with thoroughbreds I do see the pros and cons of racing. Granted I agree that we need to breed these animals for than speed, in breeding for speed we have created animals more prone to injury. Another thing that she be carefully examined is when horses are broken to ride and the ages. From experience at farms where i have worked horses have been broken in at as young as a year and a half old. There is something wrong about this picture and I wonder how many less injuries we would have if owners didn’t rush their horses in to training so soon and allowed them to grow up a little and just be horses before making them into athletes. It isn’t wrong to train a horse to do what it was bred to do and has the will and the heart to do, especially if we do it to ourselves. Just as there are people who love to race each other, there are horses who feel the same. They do it in the field when they are turned out, they do it on the tracks whether racing or exercising, they do it because it was what they were born to do. I love riding and competing in shows and I have a thing for race horses because of how much they focus on what they want to do. A horse will tell you when it doesn’t want to run you just have to listen. Eight Belles wanted to run and she wanted to win and she almost did. Second for the first filly in nine years to run, and only the second filly to ever place second, with only ever having three others win the derby, She did damn good and instead of focusing so much ont the tradegedy maybe it’s time we learned something from this Bigfilly who believed in the impossible. She reminds me of the little train who could as it chugged along saying I thin I can I think I can. I can hear Eight Belles chanting as she runs I know I can I know I can. We lost a hero yesterday, but today she has left us with a passion strong enough she would die to achieve it. Should we not realize what we can do if we follow her example. We could change the world if we had the heart of that big Filly with an even bigger heart.

  4. sambycat

    well said, rebekah


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