Monday, May 5, 2008

Eight Belles: Gabriel Saez, the Whip, & Questions about Larry Jones' Choices Leading to Kentucky Derby Death, Eight Belles Racing Video

When evaluating a mystery--like why Eight Belles, a supposedly healthy racehorse, suddenly breaks multiple bones and is put to death at the Kentucky Derby--it's useful to look for the common element that becomes a common denominator. Just as the old teaching poem says "for want of a nail, a horse was lost." What led that nail to be wanting? Poor choices.

We're bringing you videos of Eight Belles on the track. They all have important clues that show why former rodeo guy Larry Jones, the filly's trainer, and her jockey Gabriel Saez, need to be thoroughly investigated, with Saez immediately suspended.

In 2007, Eight Belles didn't just win this race, but galloped away with it, leaving the field about 14 lengths behind. Watch jockey Saez carefully.

The more Eight Belles pulls away from the others, and the bigger the lead she gains, the more Saez whips her. That's right--her reward for responding to what should have been a signal "tap" or two, is to get repeatedly hit with the stick the faster she runs and the better she does.

Rewind. There clearly is no way that the trailing horses are going to catch up with Eight Belles--unless, of course, she falls--but Saez just piles the whip blows on. That, friends, is just plain nuts as far as racing strategy--as well as cruel and indicative of a major problem.

Saez brutally whipped Eight Belles to a second-place finish in the Derby. Over-using the whip is a common denominator in Saez' riding style.

Eight Belles won the Martha Washington by 13 l/4 lengths, as shown in this retrospective. For most of the race, she's running sixth out of a field of eight. Suddenly, she explodes and runs past the field like they're taking a Sunday stroll.

Who's riding Eight Belles for the Martha Washington win? Gifted rider Terry Thompson. Thompson, who's come back from two major injuries, wins 14% of the time and is in the money 45% of the time.

Here's Eight Belles winning the Fantasy Sweepstakes earlier this year. She rears up a little bit at the start of the race. She runs behind most of the race. Then she wins, by 3/4 of a length, or: just barely.

The jockey finally goes to the whip at the very last. Notice that when she is ahead, even though her lead is very short, the jockey's hands are on the reins. He could see she had the race, and he finished up with a hand ride, albeit a short one.

The difference? The jockey who stayed seated and calm although Eight Belles reared in the gate--one of the most dangerous things that can happen-- and whoe trailed most of the way wasn't Saez.

Ramon Dominguez steered Eight Belles to this win. So why wasn't he on Eight Belles at the Derby? Was he not Derby-qualified?

Actually, Dominguez is not only Derby-qualified, but he was at the Derby. He was aboard Ronba. The colt won the Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland in April, but was a sluggard in the Derby. Notice that when Dominguez wins Keeneland he's not laying on the whip. Dominguez, who had won before on Eight Belles, would have been a good match for the talented filly in the Derby.

As of May 2, Dominquez is the fifth highest-winning money-maker among jockeys, with $4,690,994 to his credit. His stats show that he wins 28% of the time, and is in the money 65% of the time.

But Jones went to Saez, who appears to be his favorite rider. Why? It must be because of outstanding stats, right?

Wrong. Saez, who's just barely out of the apprentice class, isn't even cited by the Jockeys' Guild. He wins 10% of the times he rides, and is in the money 40% of the time.

Another question--why did Jones put Eight Belles in the Derby? Why this last-minute decision? Was it because he thought her checkered racing stats, her long, often-gawky legs, and her heavy body all signaled readiness for what is, even in a smaller field, a long shot for a filly and one of the more demanding races?

"The only reason Eight Belles is running in the Derby was because we felt like we had a really good shot of winning the Oaks without her," Jones said.

Jones figured he could win the big bucks in the Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby with another horse. So he threw Eight Belles into the 20-horse Derby field. There's a difference between running the Oaks and the Derby, and running in the Derby shouldn't be an off-hand, pocketbook decision.

But Jones has made some other controversial decisions, too. Last year, he rewarded jockey Mario Pino for helping to develop Hard Spun, guiding him through his career starts, by dumping him just four days before the Belmont Stakes.

Pino had ridden Hard Spun to second in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness. Jones said that Pino had not followed his orders in rating Hard Spun. Pino, fearing the colt would get boxed in, had moved Hard Spun into a better track position.

Aw shucks'ing all over the place, Jones opined "“I feel badly for Mario, as he is truly a nice guy, but he made a mistake." He didn't, however, address why, if Pino had made the mistake in the Preakness he waited until just four days ahead of the Belmont rather earlier.

How did that work out? Hard Spun, who racing experts said clearly seemed too tired for the race, barely sputtered into fourth place. He battled new jockey Garrett Gomez, who tried to follow Jones' demands and rate the horse. Meanwhile, Gomez's former mount, the filly Rags to Riches, stumbled and went to her knees at the start of the race and then ran right by the boys to win.

And how is Pino doing? His stats show that wins 22% of the time and places in the money 54% of the time. Pino, Maryland’s all-time winningest jockey, has just been honored by by named The Honorary Postmaster for Preakness 133 Station.

If we here at the Peanut headquarters were into betting, we sure wouldn't bet on Jones' decisions. Except for one: he likes, really likes, a rough rider named Gabriel Saez.


  1. This is a new segment here on "Weekend Update" I like to call "Really?!"
    Really, this is your argument, Saez whipped the horse too much and Larry Jones made a bad decision to run her in the Derby. Really?! First of all, Saez did nothing wrong and seeing how she ran in the Derby it looks like Larry Jones made a good decision because she beat 18 other horses. Now, her injury and euthanization albeit tragic and very unfortunate happens in horse racing. Probably more than you know. And it's not because jockeys whip the horses too much. And as for your comment about how Saez beat her to death after she was drawing off in that one race is completely ludicrous. That was mild compared to some of the whipping jobs I've seen jockeys give a horse. Really?!, thats your argument. Look their legs are fragile. It's nearly a ton being supported by essentially what turns out to be four toothpicks. You can quote all the stats and jockey changes and this and that you want but if that's the basis for your argument you should realize any sane person who has an ounce of racing know-how would laugh at your immediate investigation of Saez and Larry Jones. Really?! Your argument is about as fragile and thin as a horse's lower legs. Look at some equine anatomy books if you need a reference point.

  2. This whole thing is a tragedy. 8 belles was a beautiful horse. Horses are born to run free, not be ran to their death because of mans greed. Watching her get beat with a whip, and going down broke the hearts of thousands of people. I will never ever watch any horse racing again as long as I live.
    What a waste.
    You were a real beauty!!

  3. Read, please, No where did the Peanut crew say that Saez beat her to death. We did, however, point out that the mare won under better riders who didn't over-use the whip. (Did you watch any of the videos?) We did, however, point out that Larry Jones has made some questionable decisions. And we do think that this deserves an investigation.

    The question of whether or not Saez has a questionable riding style is exactly why an investigation is needed. The question of why Larry Jones makes the decisions he has, and why he replaces better riders who win without heavy whipping is exactly why an investigation is needed. Jones' last-minute decision to move her from the Oaks to the Derby, and the reasons he gave, aren't satisfactory to some race and horse fans.

    In the future, if you choose to comment here, we ask that you comment on topics, but don't indulge in personal attacks.

    What is your relationship to the Larry Jones team? Your personal attacks make this sound like a very personal issue for you.

    Actually, we here at the Peanut crew have ridden and schooled thoroughbreds and TH mixes.
    We hope you have, too.

  4. Thank you, B. Kippes.

    Please, write to the Kentucky Racing Association, the Steward's Association, the Jockeys' Guild, etc. Feel free to include the link to the analysis.

    The best way to mourn her is to speak out for her. And with the internet, it's easy to do by visiting websites and using their comments and email forms.

  5. Hello this was not a personal attack by me. I am just sorry for what happened to this horse and was only making a comment. I have always thought horse racing for sport is cruel, and using a whip anyway that it's done I don't think that it's right.

  6. Hi anonymous, I think the comment you're referring to was posted in reply to Chris. Is that correct? I'm sorry I didn't make that clearer.

  7. Thank you for your information.
    I really appreciate it.


  8. Anonymous/BKippes, you're welcome. Hope it helps in understanding this tragedy. Drop by any time!

  9. If you wish to act like you know so much about the Derby and horse racing, perhaps you should at least know the names of the horses running. Who the heck is Ronba? "Actually, Dominguez is not only Derby-qualified, but he was at the Derby. He was aboard Ronba."

  10. Dear "Anonymous" @1:37 p.m.

    Thank you for correcting the typo. You are absolutely correct: Dominquez was aboard 14 Monba, trained by Todd Pletcher. Alas, we are not perfect typists, and despite proof-reading, a mis-struck key here and there and here and there will get by.

    Now that we have covered that typing issue, did you have anything to say about the actual topic at hand? Please also note that discussion of the topic is welcomed, but we don't condone personal attacks.

  11. I watched the videos. I also witnessed the Honey Bee at Oaklawn Park. She was very impressive in person and I was deeply saddened after the derby.
    Most of what I have read in the past two days is at the extremes. It seems that you have some insightful info, but I question the conclusion that the jockey caused her to break down by whipping her too much.

    It looked like Dominguez whipped her pretty good during the Fantasy.

    Did Larry Jones know the horse wasn't sound? The picture of Saez walking away from her to leave her alone chills my bones.

    What will the autopsy be able to tell us?



  12. These may be some of the worst arguments. Saez did not over whip Eight Belles, and even if he had, the injury occurred after the race when Eight Belles was being pulled up.

    And this Ramon Dominguez, that you speak so highly of is the same jockey that whipped Scrappy T so hard that he almost took out Afleet Alex in the Preakness a few years ago. These accidents happen. It was a horrible moment, but if you have watched any racing at all, you know it was not Saez's fault.

  13. Eight Belles was clearly affected by the jockey's whip. She threw her head several times and lost momentum while still trying to run. I think the jockey caused her injury before the finish line, and it became worse when she galloped out.

  14. "Anonymous"/SW, thank you for commenting. How good that you got to see Eight Belles in person. We aren't placing the entire blame on Saez--as noted, the blame lies distributed between Saez and Jones, and also within the worse elements of the industry itself.

  15. Anonymous/head tossing comment (we are trying to distinguish between "anonymous" replies here): how do you think that the jockey caused the injury during the race? Did you see something with the head tossing?

    During research, we looked at many photos of Eight Belles with different jockeys aboard, and with Saez, as well as photos of Saez with other horses. One consistent thing: the horses with Saez looked stressed and unhappy. Yet with another rider, the horse looked different.

    We believe this very young rider has problems that should be nipped in the bud now, rather than being nutured, as Larry Jones appears to be doing.

  16. Anonymous at "Saez did not over whip Eight Belles, and even if he had, the injury occurred after the race when Eight Belles was being pulled up."--

    Ahhh, does not the gallop up and pulling up after the race follow the race, and therefore is it not part of the entire race experience, energy expended, and use of the horse's body? We really don't see how saying that because a horse went down right after the finish line, the damage had nothing to do with what went on before the finish line.

    Re: Dominguez, you raise an interesting point, but one that isn't quite the same. Dominquez wound up twice--his shoulder injury causes him to often use that side awkwardly--before hitting Scrappy T once on the hip. That's once, vs. continuous whipping for several lengths.

    Also, your reference to the incident you described actually supports our call for an investigation. The entire incident was immediately flagged by stewards, it was looked at, and Dominguez was cleared of any wrongdoing.

    So why shouldn't Saez have been, or now be, evaluated as well, in his handling of Eight Belles?

    As far as our speaking highly of Dominguez, the stats we cited come from official racing and Jockeys' Guild facts. Your disagreement on Dominguez's performance as a jockey clearly is with those official organizations and the stats themselves, to some degree.

    And, yes, we do think that Dominguez would have been a far better choice than Saez. That is where we shall have to differ, with no chance of resolution. Why do you think Saez was the better choice?

  17. its so funny your using Ramon Dominguez in your examples! heh. other then Jorge "chop-chop" Chavez or Willie "chilly-willy" Martinez, ramone may be one the hardest riding jocks out there today. you may have some valid points here but by using domingez you are showing an obvious lack of knowledge. You would be better served by using Pat "baby hands" Day...the leading all time rider at churchill, or someone like Jerry Bailey or Eddie "fingers" Martin or Mike smith (and or many others). The older and more experienced a jock gets the more they tend to use finesse...heh...but not always...sorry chop-chop. The only reason i even mention these guys by name is because this whole well developed argument present here is completely off point. In your lack of understanding you have convoluted two very different issues and drawn attention away from the real problem which is two year old racing. abolish two year old racing and we may be headed towards a solution. No that wont fix everything but it damn sure will get us moving. Almost all fatal injuries occur either because horses are started too young or are too old and or infirm to be racing. The older horses is really a much more heart wrenching issue and many old platers are run in crappy little bull ring tracks everyday where there are no cameras or attention and sadly this can lead to their destruction. Some where is this thread you stated you were "horsemen"...if that were true you would know this and it would be part of your arguements. Also you would know the difference in a jocks riding style and the purpose/role of the whip. You obviously dont. Instead of trying to sell this far fetched "theory" which no one in the horse industry will consider valid for a split second and slandering a jockey you may want to consider pointing your energies towards a realistic goal: abolish two year old racing. as for the old platers who i hold a place in my heart for...they need help to! and lots of it! start at the state level! every state has a racing comission..petition them! demand more transparency (like at least one public 3 furlong work for any horse entered! ) demand more stringent vetinarians...the doc's often are pressured or out right bribed to let horses run at these junky little bull ring i wont name names there...i dont know enough about racing outside kentucky to accuse them specifically but the older horses that the media/public ignores need help to! stop your witch hunt and put your energies into something with credibility.

  18. anon/"chop chop", a few quick points.

    We are in agreement with you re: looking closely at racing two-year-olds and old horses. Although we realize that it takes a great deal of money to raise and train a racehorse, we also believe that anyone getting into the sport should be prepared to shoulder that debt and not seek immediate payback from their horse(s).

    However, there are a couple of points for disagreement/discussion. You ask why our questions about jockey selection didn't include a whole laundry list of jockeys. Please look again at the context and focus of the article. We mentioned jockeys who had ridden Eight Belles and won.

    Throwing out a laundry list of jockeys distracts from the point. The trainer had used jockeys before who had ridden Eight Belles and the trainer repeatedly selected Saez over those jockeys, even when those jockeys have much better riding records. That's part of the web of events leading up to Derby Day.

    Please note: no one can slander anyone in an article, because slander is spoken and libel is written. That said, there is nothing at all in the original articles that is libelous at all.

    We again remind posters: focus on issues, not personal attacks.

    As for us, we admit that we are not racetrack bettors nor habitues'. We don't know the current slang of those who are, and actually have no wish to.

    We also note that by trying to focus on any poster personally, another poster can handily deflect examination of the real issue at hand: what were the factors that led up to the Eight Belles tragedy? Those are the important issues in this series of articles.

    It is an accepted part of the sport that the trainer is responsible for his/her horse and its well-being. The jockey is responsible for the horse once it is in his/her hands. When a horse dies as Eight Belles did, the examination of the tragedy and its causes must, by necessity, focus on the trainer and jockey.

  19. liable or slander...sorry..i am not a lawyer and did not realize the difference but your point is taken there. we can 20/20 hindsight the jock and the trainer til the cows come home. the industry will ignore every bit of it. i am thrilled you have put so much energy into what happened and am sure any attention being drawn to the problems is better then none. But again...your accusations that the jock/trainer did something is misguided...i could draw the same series of conclusions you have put here for almost every horse that has ever died out there on the track. go smack a horse on the rump and see what i mean...they might blink at you if they react at all. the things that lead to this horrible tragedy are much more subtle then what you saw on the track that day.
    I can only hope you will put your energies into something more fruitful then this uninformed pursuit of non issues.!


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