Filly euthanized after placing second in Derby
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Trainer Larry Jones didn’t realize anything was wrong until he saw his jockey, Gabriel Saez, ride by on the back of NBC broadcaster Donna Brothers’ pony.
Saez looked at his trainer: “Mr. Jones, we had to put her down.”
Jones ran down the track, jumped into an equine ambulance and raced to his fallen filly, Eight Belles, on the first turn at Churchill Downs.
She was already gone.
Eight Belles had run the race of her life, finishing second in the sport’s biggest race against 19 boys. She had been put down with two fractures in her front legs that occurred nearly a quarter-mile after the finish, as she galloped out.
“It’s not supposed to end that way,” Jones said. “We’re heartbroken. We’re going to miss her.”
Eight Belles suffered two broken front ankles with a compound fracture on the left side.
The 3-year-old daughter of Unbridled’s Song was euthanized on the track, after outriders and other horses and jockeys in the 20-horse Derby field went by.
Dr. Larry Bramlage struggled to describe the cause of Eight Belles’ fatal breakdown.
“In my years of racing, I have never seen this happen at the end of the race or during the race,” the equine surgeon said. “I don’t have an explanation for it because I haven’t seen anything like this before.”
It is believed to be the first time a horse was euthanized at the track in the 134 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, according to an NTRA official.
The scene – which comes two years after Barbaro suffered a broken leg in the Preakness that eventually cost him his life – tempered an event held in front of the second biggest crowd in Derby history.
Jones had finished second in the Derby for the second year in a row – Hard Spun was runner-up last year – and was proudly making his way through the crowd to the track when he heard the news.
“I saw (Big Brown jockey) Kent (Desormeaux) and you could tell it wasn’t like he just won a Derby,” Jones said. “He was a little solemn. I heard a horse broke down.”
Eight Belles, who had five wins in nine starts, was trying to become the first filly in 20 years to win the Kentucky Derby and give Jones the rare Oaks-Derby double. Jones also trains Oaks winner Proud Spell.
It was the second bad accident in as many days at Churchill Downs. On Friday, Chelokee suffered a dislocated ankle in the Grade III Alysheba on a sloppy track. The 4-year-old is being given a 50-50 chance to survive. Chelokee, currently in a Lexington equine hospital, is trained by Michael Matz, who also trained Barbaro.
“This wasn’t a track issue,” Jones said. “We were through racing. All we have to do is gallop and stop and come home. She hit the wire and was galloping out well.”
Jones said the fact she was a filly running against colts — only three fillies have tested the boys in the past 19 Derbies — played no role in the injury.
“It wasn’t the fact there were 19 boys in there,” he said. “She could have been running against Shetland ponies. It wasn’t in the race where it happened.”
Bramlage, on hand when Barbaro was injured, said because both legs were affected, there was no chance Eight Belles could have been saved.
“She didn’t have a front leg to stand on,” he said
Eight Belles showed no signs of injury as she crossed the finish line 3 1/2 lengths ahead of third place Denis of Cork. As she rounded the first turn, slowing down, her front ankles gave way and she dropped.
Said Saez, “After we passed the wire, I stood up. She started galloping funny and I tried to pull her up, but she went down.”
Bramlage said the injury could have started as a microfracture, as Eight Belles ran to the first runner-up showing by a filly in the Derby in more than a century (three fillies have won in that span).
Jones, visibly emotional as he spoke with reporters about two hours after the race, didn’t have an answer.
“It’s unexplainable,” Jones said. “It was a quarter-mile after the race. Things happen for a reason. I see no reason for this.”