Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles, the first filly to run the race in nine years, was euthanized on the track after breaking both front ankles moments after crossing the finish line.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — With heart and determination, Eight Belles ran the race of her life in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. But just after crossing the wire second behind Big Brown, Eight Belles, the only filly in the race, collapsed after breaking her front ankles. She was euthanized on the racetrack.
“There was no way to save her,” said her trainer, Larry Jones. “She couldn’t stand. There was no way to even think about trying to save her.”
Jones was visibly shaken as he spoke to reporters at his barn on the Churchill Downs backstretch after the race. A veteran horseman who won Friday’s Kentucky Oaks with Proud Spell, he had difficulty handling what happened to Eight Belles.
“These things are our family, “Jones said. “We put everything into them that we have, and they give us everything they have. They put their lives on the line, and she was glad to do it.”
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Eight Belles was also entered in the previous day’s Oaks, but the owner Rick Porter had so much confidence in her that he decided instead to take on the male horses in the Kentucky Derby. He knew it would be a daunting task. Only three fillies have won the Kentucky Derby in its 134-year history, and none since Winning Colors in 1988.
Eight Belles was up to the challenge. Ridden by Gabriel Saez, she was no match for the Richard Dutrow Jr.-trained Big Brown but was easily second, finishing three and a half lengths in front of Denis of Cork.
“You don’t know why it happened,” Jones said “She ran a whale of a race, the race of her life. She ran great. I didn’t see the replay, but she apparently got beat by a horse who is as good as Mr. Dutrow said he is. I know she was easily second.”
Eight Belles came to a stop about three-sixteenths of a mile past the finish, where Saez dismounted.
“After we passed the wire, I stood up,” Saez said. “She started galloping funny, and I tried to pull her up, but she went down.”
After briefly standing, she collapsed to the track. The horse ambulance and a crew of veterinarians quickly arrived, but there was nothing they could do to save her life.
“She didn’t have a front leg to stand on to be splinted and hauled off in the ambulance, so she was immediately euthanized,” said Dr. Larry Bramlage, an on-call veterinarian representing the American Association of Equine Practitioners.
When asked how a horse could finish a race, then break down when being pulled up, Bramlage said: “That’s not terribly unheard of. Horses really tire. They are taking a lot of load on their skeleton because their muscles are fatigued. So we will occasionally see a catastrophic injury after the wire when the horse is slowing down. The difficult thing to explain with her is it’s so far after the wire, and she was easing down like you’d like to see a horse slow down by that point. And then all of a sudden, it goes over the brink in both legs. I don’t have an explanation for it because I have no background to draw on.”
Eight Belles was an undistinguished 2-year-old filly who won just one of five starts. She turned a corner this year, winning her 3-year-old debut by 15 lengths. She kept progressing throughout the year, winning all four of her starts, including the Fantasy and the Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn.
Porter decided to enter the Oaks as a backup plan in case Eight Belles drew a poor post in the Derby. When she drew No. 5, the owner and trainer declared that she was a certain Derby starter and remained confident throughout the week that she belonged in the Derby.
Eight Belles, won five of nine career starts, earning $308,650.
Though horse racing has had a number of high-profile breakdowns in recent years, the Kentucky Derby had not been plagued by serious accidents or injuries over the last few decades.
On Friday, Chelokee, a horse trained by Michael Matz, broke down in the Alysheba Stakes. Bramlage reported Saturday that Chelokee was doing well and may survive. Matz is the trainer of Barbaro, who won the 2006 Kentucky Derby only to break down in the Preakness and eventually be euthanized.