Eight Belles, All’s Not Well

I haven’t watched TV since I turned the Kentucky Derby off yesterday in grief and horror.

I’m a little sorry I even read this NY Times editorial, which my friend sent me and with which I completely agree. Here’s how it went down for me. Someone looked at our house, which is now for sale, and didn’t get out until a few minutes before post time. I had only read about the Derby Friday and decided I didn’t want Big Brown to win because his owner sounded so over-the-top, ranting boastful about him. So I picked either Pyro or Gayego.

I didn’t pick Eight Belles because of what Hillary Clinton had said on the campaign trail last week about “don’t count the filly out.” Sometime last week either Joe Scarborough or Willie Geist had joked that they hoped the filly didn’t come in second and break down and have to be shot. I may have pushed that a bit further than they actually said but I swear that was essentially the joke. EDITED TO ADD THIS FROM THE TRANSCRIPT: Joe Scarborough says, “Boy how embarrassing if Eight Belles pulls up lame and they have to put her down.”

So the race goes off, huge field, nothing untoward happens, and Big Brown goes ahead at the turn, wins convincingly, and I was excited for him. But Eight Belles was a heroic second. She had even started to close on him and then he just surged ahead, not Secretariat in the Belmont, but he was really good. And I swear as he was galloping out after the race I kept worrying, “Is that a misstep?” “Is he lame?” “Is he limping?” I’m not saying this was a premonition. I think everybody who saw Barbaro in the Preakness is haunted by that possibility. And then all of a sudden he looked like he really was going down. He staggered or stumbled or bucked and his jockey, Kent Desormeaux , came off. He clambered back on and then the cameras panned to Eight Belles, a lump of black on the track.

In hindsight, which came only a few minutes later when a vet said what happened, I think Big Brown must have heard her legs break. It would have sounded like a gunshot.


And the first thing I thought of was Ruffian, and the 1975 match race with Foolish Pleasure all those years ago at Belmont Park. I was watching and that time I really did have a premonition of disaster. Because I was living in New York, and out my window I could see this terrible black storm coming in from the west, and I was afraid they wouldn’t get the race off before it hit. And then of course, she broke her leg. She was winning and she died.

And the worst thing about yesterday, the reason I had to stop watching, was that the Big Brown people were still hugging, and shouting, and boasting, and celebrating, exulting. I have to believe they hadn’t seen the equine ambulances racing out, didn’t know the horse that came in second had just been put down.

And I bring a sudden new perspective to this whole sport from working with the horses at Great & Small, where Penny lived. They have adopted many, many racing thoroughbreds, who break down, or don’t win, and their owners just abandon them. They come to G&S skin and bones, lame, crazy, unridable, almost unhandleable. And most of them eventually come around, come back to health at least, but are usually worthless–permanently lame and permanently insane. Some have not survived the abuse and neglect. One of my two special charges out there now is Hayroll, a thoroughbred brood mare, who was never raced and perhaps never even ridden. And she has some problem with one of her front legs so she can’t even be trained now for riding. She was crazy when I first met her, a complete nut case, but in the few years I’ve known her she has become an emotive, quiet darling.

So now that I know these horses personally, I don’t know how in conscience anyone could race a three-year-old, much less a two-year-old. They’re babies. The article linked to above about Ruffian explains how thoroughbreds are now being bred for short, brilliant careers, rather than strength, stamina, and health. This is like the AKC ruining breed after breed going for looks rather than health, intelligence and temperament.

I’ve loved horse racing my whole life and now I don’t think I could watch another race.

3 thoughts on “Eight Belles, All’s Not Well

  1. I know that I will never watch another horse race. It is tragic that these magnificent animals are only valued for the fame & fortune they can bring to their owners. And when they are done (or can’t even become) being winners – they are neglected, shot, sold for dog food… It is so sad… I cried my eyes out when I read the news.

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  2. Eight Belles was just a Baby…an innocent…It’s just about the saddest thing I’ve even seen…If the racing game finally wakes up and makes some needed changes…and many are needed..then maybe she didn’t die in vain…

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