Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Tragedy of Eight Belles: Kentucky Derby Death Sounds Warning Bell for Racing; Investigation of Gabriel Saez, Larry Jones & Racing Required

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.


  1. I read this and your other post analyzing Saez's body of work as a jockey. Yours is the most informative and analytical resource about poor Eight Belles that I've found out there. Everything else is useless (damage control on one end, PETA shrillness on the other). I remember how excited I was as a 9-year-old following Genuine Risk's Triple Crown endeavors, which makes Eight Belles' tragedy hit a tiny bit more personal for me. Thanks!

  2. Eydie, thank you so very much. You made me smile--I feel so good to have my work appreciated. The analysis post took about 7 hours of hard research and work, plus writing. And I have more data stored that I haven't yet amplified or written. Feel free to share the link. :) I am so angry at this; like you, I've been following and loving horses since I was a kid. Saez is a menace, and IMHO, so is Jones.

  3. I was sent to this link from elsewhere. Honestly, I don't know enough about racing to analyze the video you present, but you clearly thought about it from the POV of partisanship for the horse, not for spin on either side.

    This tragedy reminds of Ruffian, which I watched, appalled, on live TV

  4. Anonymous, thank you for visiting and commenting, and for yes, seeing so clearly the middle path, the path of the horse, that we are taking. There's enough spin and yelling on the extreme ends; we think this issue needs to be looked at clearly in terms of not only this horse, but other horses to come.

    We thought about Ruffian too. It was a bad day we've never forgotten either.

  5. You are the voice of reason....I grew up around horses....even worked at a racetrack for apx. 5 yrs. I found that almost all of the folks that worked around racehorses were good, hardworking horsemen, but the bad element existed also. On the backside, everyone knows who the problem barns are & they get the cold shoulder from the ranks.... Doesn't take much to get a Trainers License and pick up a few "cheap claimers"...and call oneself a Trainer. In my opinion, I have found that on an average "race day card" you will find mostly hardworking, honest people who live & breath horses....and the horses in their charge, that are carefully trained and conditioned to run in the races that they qualify for. Your average daily race isn't a spectacular event ......No, it's far better! Mary Ann

  6. You are the voice of reason....I grew up around horses....even worked at a racetrack for apx. 5 yrs. I found that almost all of the folks that worked around racehorses were good, hardworking horsemen, but the bad element existed also. On the backside, everyone knows who the problem barns are & they get the cold shoulder from the ranks.... Doesn't take much to get a Trainers License and pick up a few "cheap claimers"...and call oneself a Trainer. In my opinion, I have found that on an average "race day card" you will find mostly hardworking, honest people who live & breath horses....and the horses in their charge, that are carefully trained and conditioned to run in the races that they qualify for. Your average daily race isn't a spectacular event ......No, it's far better! Mary Ann

  7. Me again (anon) -- after reading your post I went on a surfing rampage. I think there is another issue here. I looked up some of the other infamous racing breakdowns, then I went pedigree hunting. I see a pattern of lines to one particular sire & his get in the horses that have broken down. I may be wrong (I don't know all that much about racing, but I do know something about genetics in other mammals) but I wonder. You obviously know more about Thoroughbreds than I do, any thoughts?

  8. Mary Ann, thank you for your complimentary post--it means a great deal coming from someone with first-hand, working knowledge of the daily horse world.

    Yes, most horse people are "good people." One that that worries us: the renewed cries that will continue to come to stop all racing. That's somewhat like saying: we know some bad doctors, stop all doctoring; there are some bad scientists, stop all scientific study; there are some bad drivers, stop all driving; there are some bad lawyers, stop all lawyers; there are some bad teachers, stop all teaching.

    There is a difference between addressing specific problems directly and honestly, followed by work to fix those problems, and the shrill hysteria of witch hunters. Just as there's a difference between moderation and the shrill hysteria of those who say no wrong at all is being done, has been done, oh no, no.

  9. Hi anon(again): good for you for doing the research, and thank you for sharing it.

    We focused firstly on the prime movers in Eight Belles' case, as the starting point. But during the research and work, we, too, began coming across references to repeated problems in progeny.

    Is there a problem from a single ancestor? Is there a problem from "line breeding" so close that it becomes in-breeding? These are things that must also be considered in the breeding of future animals, and in the safeguarding of those already on the ground.

    We've spent many years in showing dogs in AKC championship shows, and have champions. Our research on our breed has gone back clear to the early 1900's, and also focused on developing trends in line breeding.

    Awhile back, there was one famous champion sire that repeatedly had progeny, children or grandchildren, that came up with lung/breathing problems and that died fairly young. Just as in racing, many didn't want to acknowledge this, but it was a oft-whispered reality. One thing we found surprising--early in that dogs' career, after watching him perform and evaluating him, we decided that we would not breed to him, nor his direct progeny, because we did not like his lack of chest.

    This stance was not popular. Then voila! A few years later, and his get are showing--lack of chest capacity and development, and breathing/lung problems. Eventually, there was a good-sized group of us who became vocal about not breeding to him or his lines.

    So yes, definitely, lineage does affect the health and characteristics of horses, too. In fact, there's one entire line of horses that tends to be dangerous, almost impossible to handle, and that has attacked people. No matter the speed attributed to those lines, we wouldn't go near them if we were fortunate enough to be able to be in horses, or even have just one or two.

  10. Me again (anon)--

    I *think*, if I've got my facts straight (I gotta print out some of these lineages)the problem came in from 1 sire who was fast and famous but seems to appear multiple times in the lines of horses that have broken down.

    Is TB breeding pursuing speed over the shorter distances at the expense of soundness by using horses carrying this sire's possible flaw? I think so.

    I come to this from training in biology & biomedical science, along with a self-taught knowledge of genetics in cats & dogs, so I could be way off base, but I don't think I'm totally off. Reading human pedigrees is more difficult because we have so much less data, but I've learned how to extract useful information from the usually no more than 3 generations and small numbers of members of each generation so I have the think the same analyses should work on equine pedigrees.

  11. Hi anon (again): great work! Have you yet examined these records in light of the Dosage Index? Given your background, we'd be especially interested in your analysis there, too.

    We are among those who think that some breeders/trainers are trending toward a push for greater speed at all costs.

    Would you be interested in publishing your review and analysis, with full credit, of course? We'll be glad to make space for you.

  12. There was a very timely article in the Wall Street Journal "Weekend" section on Friday about horse racing. It noted that the progeny of Native Dancer have shown a tendency towards leg problems of various kinds. Check Barbaro's pedigree and there it is - Native Dancer. Also check Eight Belles and you will find her in-bred to Native Dancer - in other words, he appears in the pedigree oof both her dam and sire. I have a rescue thoroughbred - no Native Dancer and legs like rocks. Perhaps breeders should look elsewhere for soundness as well as stamina

  13. Me again (anon)

    I don't know if it's worth a big post, but here's what I have in short form -- I found 10 somewhat similar breakdowns (found a TB memorial site that contributed several of them)& an extensive pedigree site. Looked for inbreeding & whether any major sire appeared multiple times, backtrailed those sires & looked for other members of the lines in the horses I started with. One sire, dating back to 1935, appears in all the patterns, although it's got to be autosomal as in some cases it seems to have been passed down thru a mare. If you think it's worth it I can write it up in detail.

  14. Anonymous who mentioned WSJ's article -- that's pretty much what my rampage thru bloodlines suggested, except that the sire that brought in the problem looks to be *before* Native Dancer, and that if you trace it forward more animals that have lines to that sire appear in the pedigrees. I don't think it was Native Dancer originally, although because he was such a major sire a lot of current TBs have lines to him.

  15. Great blog post! Eight Belles death was truly tragic - as are the hundreds of other deaths that occur at race tracks across this country that no one ever hears about. I love your viewpoint on the jockey - when the TV commentator said the jockey walked away I assumed the worst but I never dreamed that he walked away after having done nothing and showing NO EMOTION WHATSEVER! I barrel race an Appendix and I have run her on the 1/4 mile flat track (came in 1st each of the 3 years I ran). I don't kick or whip at shows and on the track I did pop her once when she couldn't see the horse coming at us, but I would never ever flail on any horse every stride like this jockey was doing. The trainer said it was to keep her off the rail - yeah right - Eight Belles did not look like she had any intention of hitting the rail. The jockey was worried about not getting his bonus for winning. I am not an expert on racing, but I do know that horses continue to grow until they are 5 and that I would never compete on any of my horses before they were 4. I wish the thoroughbred racing industry would consider increasing the minimum racing age to 4. I have contact the NTRA and TOBA - NTRA hasn't responded and TOBA just sent a canned response. There are many other issues at play in the countless injuries that occur on race tracks, such as breeding, drugs, over-whipping and they all must be addressed. I am still so upset and just plain angry about the whole thing I can't stand it! I wonder if we will ever find out the results of the autopsy.

  16. Thanks to everyone who has commented so far. Your time and thoughts are appreciated.

    We concur: there are serious problems in racing today.

    We also note this: the sweeping under the rug has begun. The stewards couldn't wait to leap into the fray to back the jockey.

    Has anyone else noticed that news about this seems to have disappeared? Ah huh.

    To the "Anonymous" who was doing research--please post again and label your post PRIVATE. If you then include an email address, we can get in touch with you--and we will not publish that post. We can "reject" posts and keep them private.

    Keep the outrage going!

  17. I was at the Derby this year and here's an educated guess as to why Larry Jones didn't see Eight Belles' fall. (We didn't see it, either!) The fall occurred near the backstretch, an area of the track that's very difficult to see. Trailers, bleachers, outhouses, stands, signs and landscaping block the view for the majority of attendees, especially those who are at ground level or in the lower levels of the elevated seating. Larry Jones was likely at track level when the fall occured. If that's the case, he definitely couldn't have seen that part of the track.

    As for the outriders contacting Mr. Jones... They were more concerned with containing and treating Eight Belles than in contacting her trainer. The equine ambulance and veterinarian were needed far more than the trainer was.

    I am a huge fan of thoroughbred horse racing and I saw nothing wrong with Gabriel Saez's ride. He did't strike the filly in the face, didn't beat her, didn't kick her. He simply used the whip on the saddle cloth as all jockeys do.

    Eight Belles was a huge, beautiful filly. I was within 5 feet of her as she was led into the saddling ring. The crowd sucked in its collective breath as she passed by; she was breathtaking. Without a doubt, her breakdown was tragic. I felt sickened at the loss of such a beautiful, talented creature. We have to realize, though, that we can't always point fingers. Some things are just freak accidents.

    The "somebody has to pay!!" mentality is causing our legal system to become sick and bloated with "somebody has to pay!!" cases. Health care costs are soaring out of control because doctors have to carry so much malpractice insurance. Why? Because if an accident occurs, the cries goes out: "Somebody has to pay!!"

    Accidents happen. Nobody was to blame.

  18. Thank you for your cogent post, "anonymous." I've had to reject several filled with nothing but profanities and attacks, and to read something that considered the entire situation was a joy.

    I truly hold the jockey and the trainer at least partially responsible--especially given the trainer's history of drugging abuses of horses in his care.


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