It was the fist Saturday in May 2008. The stands were packed, the weather was gorgeous and everyone was ready for an exciting Kentucky Derby.
Big Brown was the race favorite, though he was going to have to come out of the far gate. But, he had done it before in the Florida Derby, and all of his connections, while anxious, were also confident.
Then there were some other horses with solid credentials also running in the race, such as Colonel John, Pyro and Cowboy Cal, to name just three of the other contenders in the 20-horse field.
Then there was the filly, Eight Belles. A beautifully gray filly out of Unbridleds Song-Away, by Dixieland Band, she was being almost totally overlooked by many of “the experts.” However, she was definitely the favorite of all the little girls and many of the women in attendance at Churchill Downs that day, as well as those watching on television.
While she had the credentials, coming into the Derby with wins in Fantasy Stakes (G2), Honeybee Stakes (G3) and Martha Washington Stakes, she was still not considered a horse that had a chance against all of the “big boys” in the field.
Well, Eight Belles showed them all. She ran the race of her life. She ran like the wind and ran her heart out around that dirt track at Churchill and showed the world just how good a race horse she truly was.
While all eyes were on Big Brown, Eight Belles settled in near the front of the pack early on, then with three furlongs to go, she found herself blocked and unable to move forward.
Her jockey, Gabriel Saez, angled her out at the quarter pole, and she began to charge down the stretch after Big Brown. She then drifted in toward the rail near the furlong marker and just kept driving for the leader.
In the end, she left 18 of the other “big boys” behind her, but she just could not catch Big Brown and crossed the line in second place, 4-3/4 lengths behind the winner.
The crowd roared, not just for Big Brown’s win, but for the gutsy, heart-stopping performance of the sweet filly. The girl who beat 18 of the boys, but could not catch Big Brown, a horse that would go on to win the Preakness, but fall short in the Belmont of winning the Triple Crown.
With the race over, and the cheering continuing on as the horses galloped out after the race, no one was really paying attention to the horses as they went around the turn to slow down before coming back to the stands, to their connections, for the praise and joy they all so richly deserved.
In one of the freakiest accidents every witnessed, Eight Belles crumbled to the ground on the turn as both of her front ankles broke at the same time. No one had ever seen or heard of this type of thing before.
Sadly, with both ankles broken, there was no hope of saving her and she had to be euthanized on the track.
Little girls, grown men and women, wept for the valiant Eight Belles, who almost became the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby since Winning Colors won it in 1988.
Her trainer, Larry Jones, her owner, Rick Porter, were in shock. Jones, who is a trainer who truly cares for his horses, was unable to get to Eight Belles before she had to be put down. He was devastated.
“She ran the race of her life,” he said in an interview afterwards with tears forming in his eyes. “She ran great.”
Almost immediately afterwards, animal rights groups like Peta, a group that has good intentions and has done good things for animals over the years, but who has become more extremist as the years go on, wanted horse racing condemned and done away with all together.
Others said that it had to do with the dirt track and that racing should shift to turf and synthetics, while others said that Eight Belles must have had drugs in her system.
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and thanks to the tragedy of Eight Belles, her legacy is that horse racing is now safer than ever before.
To start, as Jones said time and time again after the race, it was proven Eight Belles had absolutely no drugs in her system at the time of the race. But, because of all the talk about drugs, horse racing took a hard look at medications. Steroids were banned. And now, three years later, conversations and rules are in place getting rid of all race day medication for horses.
In fact, the conversation continues on today. Currently, the conversation is ongoing about the race day medication, Lasix, something that has been used for years without a second thought. Now, slowly, but surely, it is being banned. First for two-year olds next year, and even in the Breeders’ Cup starting next year.
Some trainers and owners say it shouldn’t be banned, while others say, ‘It’s about time.” The conversation about Lasix, and other drugs, will continue on. But, at least, they are finally talking about it.
One of the other things that race officials really began to look at and study after Eight Belles, was track surfaces. Was it possible that the hard dirt at Churchill might have caused her accident? Is one surface safer than another surface for horse racing?
Study after study was, and still is, being conducted to determine if synthetics or turf are safer than dirt. While the results are still not conclusive (more time is needed to get a good “base” of research established on this topic), this is still an on going debate. But, again, at least they are talking about it.
In the meantime, the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance began certifying race tracks around the country to ensure that they are safe for horses, jockeys, exercise riders, and other folks that work in the sport.
The goal of the Alliance was summed up in a BloodHorse.com article on April 18, 2009, in which it stated that “The Alliance, formed last October (2008) with the goal of establishing national uniform standards in the areas of safety and integrity, includes 55 racetracks in North America and every major national horsemen’s organization. The accreditation program initially will focus on human and equine safety, but will be expanded to cover additional areas, including wagering security.”
One of the biggest tolls of Eight Belles death was on Jones, her trainer. For a year after her death, he was put in the cross hairs by animal right groups who said he had used drugs on the filly, or that he abused her by running her against the colts in the Derby. And, for that year, he answered every question in interview after interview. In the end, when everything he said was proven true, he ended up retiring from the sport.
While he would not say that it was all that followed Eight Belles that caused him to step away from the sport, common sense says he was under so much pressure that he just needed to get away for a while. That’s speculation, of course, but all that pressure, plus the loss of a beloved race horse, had to have taken its toll
Luckily for the sport, one year later, he came back and is once again one of the top trainers in the country. Needless to say, this is a good thing because, without question, he is one of the “good guys” in the sport, and the sport is better having him in it.
While the death of Eight Belles was certainly a tragedy, her legacy helped horse racing take a giant step forward. Since her death, the sport has become safer and, in terms of drug use on horses, much “cleaner.”
Still, it would have been so much sweeter if she had been able to trot back to the grandstand after her great effort in the Derby and enjoy the cheers from the fans and the adulation from her connections for her great accomplishment on that Saturday in May. It would also have been so much nicer to see just how great a race horse she would have become had she been able to continue her racing career.
Eight Belles will be one of those horses that will always be remembered. She will remembered for her huge heart, her great performance in the Derby, her beautiful stature, and, most of all, for all the safety and improvements that she brought her sport since her passing.
She will live in our hearts
The magnificent steel gray
Who gave us her all
The first Saturday in May.
- Fox Hill Farms
Rest in Peace Eight Belles. 2005-2008
Note: There are a number of great books that have been written about Eight Belles since her death. One in particular, Eight Belles: Triumph Beyond the Wire by Maria Michalak, is definitely worth the read. It can be found on Amazon.com.
Poem from Eight Belles memorial plaque at Churchill Downs.
Photo by Rick Capone.