Eight Belles Tragedy Is Hard to Take

'Eight Belles' trainer Larry Jones says he was not contacted before emergency personnel put down the filly, but says it was the humane decision.
By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 5, 2008; Page E09

LOUISVILLE, May 4 -- Michael Matz arrived Sunday at the Churchill Downs barn where his horses had stabled during Derby week, having just returned from the Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky.

Matz had gone early in the morning to Rood & Riddle to check on Chelokee, his 4-year-old colt that broke down in the stretch Friday during the Alysheba Stakes. The horse fractured its right front ankle while making a bid for the lead and was given a 50-50 chance of survival.

"I just came back from there, and he looks good," said Matz, who knows all too well the heartbreak of horses injured on the racetrack, having watched Barbaro, his 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, shatter his right hind leg strides out of the gate in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. "They'll do the surgery tomorrow to fuse the ankle."

By any measure, this was a difficult weekend for horse racing, with two highly visible on-track breakdowns occurring during one of the few times of year when the general public turns its attention to the sport. Chelokee apparently has a chance to live and go on to a second career in breeding, but Eight Belles, the filly who finished second to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby, does not.

Having galloped out past the finish line showing no signs of distress, Eight Belles suddenly stopped near the top of the clubhouse turn and collapsed, her front ankles shattered. Moments later, the horse was euthanized on the track in front of a crowd of 157,770.

The filly's death overshadowed the spectacular victory by Big Brown, who became the first horse since 1915 to win the Derby off just three career starts. It also renewed questions about the safety of the sport and its racing surfaces as two horses have died as the result of on-track injuries in Triple Crown races the past three years.

Judging by the large number of comments left by people on newspaper Web sites and blogs after the Derby, many people are grappling with the ethical and moral issues surrounding the racing of horses.

"What can you do? It's unfortunate," Matz said of the breakdowns of Chelokee and Eight Belles. "Good horses like that, that's what makes them good horses. They try so hard.

"I don't think any one of these people [in racing] want to hurt a horse. This poor [groom] who had Chelokee could hardly come to work yesterday. It's not like these are people who want to see a tragedy."

Steve Sexton, the president of Churchill Downs, also framed the moral question about horse racing in personal terms.

"To the casual fan, it's important to know these animals are cared for, as much or more than any athletes," Sexton said Sunday. "When this happens on a national stage, it's very unfortunate."

The Triple Crown series moves to Baltimore in two weeks for the Preakness, and Chris Dragone, president and general manager of Pimlico, hopes people's attention can return to racing.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company