Increased tension surfaces

Derby death leads to more scrutiny for sport, tracks

On Eight Belles

May 05, 2008|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN REPORTER

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A day after his prize filly Eight Belles had been euthanized shortly after the finish of the Kentucky Derby, her trainer, Larry Jones, wasn't ready to blame the sport of thoroughbred racing for her death.

"This didn't happen in the race," Jones said. "Horses in horse shows gallop faster than she was going. This is a kind sport to horses. I came out of rodeo - and I'm not saying bad things about rodeo - but there are other sports that are much harder on animals than racing. I'm proud to be a part of this game."

But after Eight Belles fractured both front ankles more than a quarter-mile after crossing the finish line in second place in the 134th Kentucky Derby, it is difficult to ignore that, in the past three years, thoroughbred racing has lost three standouts to catastrophic injuries sustained in premier events.

Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro shattered a front leg in the 2006 Preakness and eight months later was euthanized because of complications from laminitis.

In October at the Breeders' Cup at Monmouth Park, N.J., George Washington, the two-time European champion, who was running on dirt for the second time and in mud for the first time, had to be euthanized on the track after suffering multiple fractures in a front leg.

"I don't know that Eight Belles' injury continues the idea of a trend," said Dr. Larry Bramlage, the veterinarian on call for the American Association of Equine Practitioners, who was at each of the three races. "This injury was uncommon. But these are horses going as fast as any in the country at anytime during the year. But this race was over, and she was riding out. She was all the way around the turn going into the backstretch when it happened."

No one knows how the injury to Eight Belles happened. Owner Rick Porter has asked for an autopsy to figure it out. The horse will then be cremated, and Jones said her ashes would be returned to the owner's new barn at Fair Hill or possibly buried here at Churchill Downs.

"It's amazing it doesn't happen more often," trainer Nick Zito said after stating the familiar refrain that racehorses run "about 45 miles per hour on ankles no bigger than yours or mine" while carrying 1,000 pounds. "I've been wearing Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s hat all week. He lost his dad [during the 2001 Daytona 500], a tremendous figure in that sport, and he lost his life. When you operate on a high level, the risks are higher. [In the Derby] that filly ran her guts out, and that's the way it is. There are other sports that have injuries, too. It's a very unfortunate thing."

And in horse racing, it is complicated. When tragedy happens on dirt, the question of artificial surfaces comes up, which brings up 200 years of tradition and breeding.

For years, the breeding industry has been suspect, as durability has been lost in favor of speed.

"Look at him, he's 9 years old and big, strong and durable," Jones said, pointing to a big, rugged-looking horse emerging from his barn. "But no one wants to race him because he's slow."

And now artificial surfaces are being promoted as safer than dirt, though research is thin. And while artificial surfaces are in place at some tracks, they seem to be changing race results.

Monba, who won the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes on Keeneland's Polytrack, finished last in the Derby on Churchill's sandy dirt. Adriano, who won the Grade II Lane's End, also on an artificial surface, was 19th. Colonel John, who had run his entire career on artificial surfaces in California, was the highest finisher, sixth, among those not experienced on dirt.

Trainers such as Zito and Rick Dutrow, whose Big Brown won Saturday's Kentucky Derby, are adamant that much more research is needed before tracks arbitrarily switch their racing surfaces.

"I'm not a Polytrack fan at all," Dutrow said. "It might be good for bones, but not for tendons or ligaments. Every day at Hollywood [Park], I'd have to stop training a horse to take care of a problem. I got sick of it."

And Zito gets agitated over the idea of change without thorough research.

"If you told me there is a way to run on pillows and guaranteed a horse would never get hurt, I'd sign up right now," he said. "But that's not the case. You can't say `Bingo!' and make that kind of change."

And in any case, those closest to Eight Belles said Churchill Downs was not at fault.

"I watched the film of her galloping out, and I talked to Gabriel [Saez, her jockey]," Jones said. "I could see he had done all the unconscious things you do to keep your horse safe. He had moved her out into the fresh stuff. In all fairness, I think this is the first bone or tendon injury I've ever had at this track."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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