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Derby Tragedy Casts a Pall Over Horse Racing

"Sometimes they try so hard it works against them," trainer John Hartsell said of Eight Belles, who broke both front ankles.
"Sometimes they try so hard it works against them," trainer John Hartsell said of Eight Belles, who broke both front ankles. (By Brian Bohannon -- Associated Press)

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By George Solomon
Sunday, May 11, 2008

Four days after Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles was euthanized on the track at Churchill Downs -- one of the most heart-wrenching tragedies in thoroughbred racing history -- trainer Donald Barr watched intently from the rail at Laurel Park as dozens of horses were put through their paces.

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To many racing fans, the workouts on a bright, clear morning are one of the most appealing aspects of the sport. It's a time when horses, trainers, riders and stable hands all seem in concert. All seem to be trying to do right by the horses.

But during a week in which a number of veteran columnists, as well as some letter-writing fans, questioned the legitimacy and future of horse racing, even a perfect Wednesday morning felt gloomy.

"What happened last Saturday was a tragedy that hurt us all," Barr said. "It happened in the biggest race of the year, a race so magnified it's hidden how much we love the game and the horses."

A race and tragedy "so magnified" that even the 114-year-old Jockey Club, the stately breed registry for thoroughbreds in North America, announced it was forming a committee to review every facet of equine health, breeding practices and medication in hopes of "improving the health and safety" of thoroughbreds.

Two years after the crippling injury of Barbaro at the Preakness that led to the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner's death, and a week before Big Brown seeks the second leg of the Triple Crown in Baltimore, this is horse racing's hand: tragedy and celebration together.

"I'd never seen this happen before," Maryland trainer Tim Tullock said of Eight Belles breaking both ankles at the end of the Derby. "It was gut-wrenching for those of us who do this for a living. But bad things happen in every sport at the highest level. No one likes it, but you go on."

Another Maryland trainer, Mike Trombetta, said of Eight Belles: "She ran a fantastic race and in a perfect world this never would have happened. But we don't live in a perfect world. When you deal with the loss of one of these animals it's like losing part of your family. But there are risks. More than most people know."

"A freak accident," said John Hartsell, a trainer for 19 years. "These horses are amazing athletes who have a high threshold of pain. Sometimes they try so hard it works against them."

As it did last Saturday.

Not Much Academic Progress

A bad week for local colleges. By not meeting standards set by the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate (APR), Howard's football team was penalized 2.91 scholarships for a producing an APR of 916.

The ratings are based on returning academically eligible athletes semester to semester.

Maryland's basketball team had a four-year score of 906, below the NCAA's penalty cutoff of 925. But Coach Gary Williams did not lose any scholarships because two players -- D.J. Strawberry and Mike Jones -- left school to pursue pro careers in the spring of 2007, after completing their eligibility.

Still, finishing last among 12 schools in the ACC is embarrassing. So is the mini-furor at Maryland (where I teach journalism) over the recruiting of basketball player Tyree Evans, whose résumé includes misdemeanor convictions for assault and drugs.

Nor should John Thompson III be pleased that two more players -- sophomore guard Jeremiah Rivers and sophomore forward Vernon Macklin -- have said they are transferring. That's five departures since October 2006, all of them from Thompson's first two recruiting classes. At George Washington, Coach Karl Hobbs, whose program slipped markedly last season, announced that Cheyenne Moore and Miles Beatty were dismissed from the squad for not meeting team expectations.

Good Night, Fred Davis?

Where's Allen Iverson, with his mantra of "we're talking about practice," when we need him? You'd have thought that oh-so-minor earthquake in town last week was the result of Redskins rookie tight end Fred Davis missing the final day of minicamp last Sunday.

Davis, one of three second-round picks for the Redskins, overslept, according to the team and Davis's brother Kedran, who told The Post "a late night out" was Fred's explanation. "He was mortified sitting in my office," explained Coach Jim Zorn, who should be thrilled Fred was at least awake for his reprimand.

Riggo needs to counsel this young man, who may never play a down for the Redskins. At least Jason Campbell (hamstring grab) and Antwaan Randle El (35-minute arthroscopic knee surgery) actually play for the team, although both have nearly four months to recover from their grabs and scopes before the Redskins' first game Sept. 4 against the Giants.

Wizards, Capitals at Rest

Stopped by Verizon Center on Thursday to hear Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld's "state of the team" remarks, with Grunfeld reiterating that he wants to sign Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison -- free agents on July 1 -- to new contracts. "I believe in continuity," Grunfeld said.

Considering the Wizards would be taking a major risk signing Arenas, given the uncertain condition of his left knee, I'd like to see some loyalty from America's Blogger. It doesn't work that way anymore, does it?

Other Grunfeld musings:

"If there's an opportunity [trade, free agent signing] out there, we'll look at it."

"There's no mandate preventing us from going over the luxury tax."

Satisfied with Coach Eddie Jordan and his staff -- "They did a nice job".

"We're still smarting from losing in the playoffs." So are the fans. "That's good; shows they care."

· Olie Kolzig sounded pretty definitive in his remarks this week to The Post's Tarik El-Bashir about leaving the Caps for another team, or retiring, after 17 years with the organization. It's an unhappy ending for Kolzig and the club after so many years of "Olie the Goalie" as the face of the franchise.

Owner Ted Leonsis, who this week was honored by the D.C. Council for the Caps' return to the playoffs, always has been creative and smart about personnel matters.

Can Leonsis still find a way to keep Kolzig on the team, or in the organization? It's a question I'm sure Leonsis has pondered.

· There's no place more still than an empty arena in the weeks after the local pro basketball and hockey teams have been eliminated from the playoffs. I know, we have the Mystics and Neil Diamond (Aug. 5). But . . .

Have a comment or question? Reach me attalkback@washpost.com.


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