Did the world watch an over-challenged, under-prepared filly be literally run to death in this year's Kentucky Derby? The collapse of Eight Belles with an extremely rare, "sudden" case of not just one, but multiple, bone breaks cries out for investigations of jockey Gabriel Saez, trainer Larry Jones, and the money-lusting parody of equine achievement that horse racing and the once-proud Triple Crown have become.
Churchill Downs veterinarian Dr. Larry Bramlage, speaking honestly, said that he had "never seen" a dual break in all his years in racing. The question now is: why did Eight Belles, over-whipped to a second-place finish, die?
Some background here: the CEO of the Peanut enterprise is a long-time equestrian and Triple Crown fan. One of our best horses was one reclaimed from the track as being "too slow" for sprints. This horse was then retrained by a loving 16-year-old novice rider for pleasure and trail riding.
We love horses here in the Peanut office. What we don't love is the spectacle of greed, lust for quick fame, and change in racing traditions that we have seen develop over the last 10 or so years.
Here's one basic: no horse that is properly conditioned and ready for such an arduous race as the Derby is likely to spontaneously break both front ankles. A mis-step could cause a single bone breakage.
But two? It's time to take a look at trainer Larry Jones' records, and all vet records and history of this beautiful, gallant filly. It's also time for a criminal investigation, a thorough one, into the trainer's entire operation and also into jockey Gabriel Saez. Criminal? Yes--any cases of suspected animal abuse warrant criminal investigations.
Saez, a recent import from Panama, has had five starts in 2008, with two wins and three shows (third place). Yet he was aboard a Kentucky Derby horse, an achievement that in the past, seasoned riders worked hard to attain.
But when a money-maddened racing industry loads twenty horses in the starting gate, what else can they expect other than inadequate training, under-proven jockeys, and danger for all? It's long since past time to put higher qualifying standards on the Triple Crown races and to limit the field.
Let's take a look at the race. If you know horses, and know racing, you will understand the use of the riding crop. Even if you don't, it's pretty easy to see a jockey whipping rather than inspiring a horse.
Warning: this video, when you focus on Eight Belles, is not an easy one to watch. However, it's a must-see in order to understand what happened, and why racing has got to return to older, better standards and values.
Did you see the almost-endless, frantic whipping?The correct use of the light-weight crop is not one of whipping. The message that Saez' heavy hand sends is clear: his horse was faltering.
A well-conditioned Thoroughbred doesn't have to be whipped into a good finish. Thoroughbreds love to run. Usually, they have to be held back in carefully-planned race strategies. The use of the crop is a tap to signal "OK, now it's time to go!"
The best witness for the fallen Eight Belles? Winner Big Brown, who was frisky and wanted to keep going after the race. Right there, in front of the world, you can see the difference between a well-conditioned horse who was ready, willing, and able to go the distance, and one who was frothed, exhausted, and whipped to the finish line, running her heart out.
Compare also the difference between the jockeys when Barbaro and Eight Belles went down. No one could doubt that Barbaro jockey Edgar Prado did his best for Barbaro, and that he deeply cared.
There are many images of Prado's gallant work in doing his best for Barbaro. In the top one, this "little man," as these small, resilent athletes are called, is literally doing his best to support the full weight of a big, big horse while trying to soothe him and waiting for help. In the second photo, Prado is overcome by grief.
Compare Saez after Eight Belles fell. Here, he nonchalantly saunters away, leaving Eight Belles, hurt and afraid, in the hands of strangers. Saez, we here at the Peanut headquarters hope that waiting around, even briefly, for someone to hand you your saddle didn't seriously nconvenience you. Too bad, of course, that you weren't kneeling by your horse, soothing her.
And what of the trainer, Larry Jones,who came to high-end racing out of a rodeo background? Jones has very graciously said that he doesn't blame the "game" of racing for the death of the horse entrusted to him.
And well he should not. He conditioned and trained the horse, not the industry nor "the game." To his credit, owner Rick Porter has asked for an autopsy of his horse.
Jones had comments for the media. "Then Kent Desormeaux [the jockey aboard Derby winner Big Brown] come back looking too somber. Then I'm fighting through the crowd, and I heard a horse broke down. I figured it had been one of the ones that had been struggling to finish. Then I heard it was Eight Belles.'' He said he then ran over to the ambulance.
By then, track personnel were tending his horse. Memo to Jones: there are devices called walkie-talkies and cellphones. Many trainers use them for instant communications about their horses, especially when they are in need.
Given that his horse came in second, it's hard to imagine why Jones wasn't watching here and waiting for her to come off the track. Yea, there's all that ya-hoo'ing and partying to tend to. Listen up, trainers: your job is to take care of the horses. No matter what your level of talent--or ego--you are simply someone hired to do a job taking care of an animal who has no one else to rely on but you.
We think that Jones needs to be thoroughly investigated, and all horses under his care examined by outside vets. Not because one had an injury and died, for Thoroughbreds are athletes and accidents happen, but because this horse was whipped to a finish and then had two major bones shatter.
Has a dual-injury bone break happened before? Yes. In 1983, Eclipse winner Roving Boy went down at Santa Anita with two broken hind legs in a fall. However, the horse was just returning to the track after a prior front-leg fracture. The question, of course, that any reasonable horse person will ask, given the stress on Thoroughbred legs, is why the horse was being returned to racing. The answer most likely revolves around money, glory, and greed, the Holy Trifecta of modern-day racing.
Saez must be suspended during a full-scale investigation into what he knew about the horse, his prior rides, his prior history in Panama, and what happened that day. We are not, let it be said, joining the PETA demands for action for so-called humane reasons. PETA, who we regard as slightly lower than the rear end of a mangy sewer rat, has had its own scandals. Among them: lying to pet owners, taking animals for sanctuary, killing them in a van, often before the van leaves the owner's driveway, then tossing bodies in trash bins.
Frankly, we see no difference between PETA and those who mis-use animals: power, control, glory, attention, and money are the driving forces in both camps. But we also know there's a middle camp, the great majority, who understand the balance between humans and animals, and the roles we all play.
That majority, who know and love horses and racing, need to speak up now. For our part, after decades of marking Derby Day, and the Triple Crown as important days on the calendar, events we must not miss, the Peanut crew has decided to step aside from a racing world that clearly needs to clean out its stables.