Death of a Southern Belle

6 May

Migrated from ESPN.com blog February 2, 2011

Originally published May 6, 2008

In a split second, Gabriel Saez went from being the lauded 2nd place finisher in the Kentucky Derby, to a man villified for something most assuredly out of his control.

The vibrant filly he was riding, Eight Belles, crumpled to the track ground shortly after crossing the wire. It was a haunting image for spectators who remembered Barbaro’s fall at the Preakness in 2006. But this time, there would be no chance. Both of her front ankles were broken and without one to help her stand up, the only humane decision was to euthanize her.

Washington Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins wrote recently of Eight Belles, “She ran with the heart of a locomotive, on champagne-glass ankles.”

Her trainer, Larry Jones, fought back tears while he tried to speak. “She ran the race of her life,” he said.

And then there was only Gabriel Saez. The young jockey, barely an adult himself, was suddenly at the center of one of the worst tragedies in horse-racing history. PETA called for a suspension and revoking of his prize money.

I’ve watched the video of the race over and over again, and I see nothing in Eight Belles’ noble face but sheer determination. There was no sign of pain, no sign of distress, nothing to tell Gabriel to stop. He couldn’t have known she was struggling. I just don’t believe that he could have known.

I believe that PETA’s blame and anger is severely mis-directed. I agree that there are certainly things that could be done to make horse racing safer. Perhaps breeding needs to be more carefully monitored to produce horses with thicker limbs. Maybe the track type needs to change (although there are mixed reports on the effect of that approach). Maybe horses should have to wait until they’re fully developed before racing. Lighter whips could be mandated. I don’t know. What I do know is that no one intended to injure a multi-million dollar horse. No one wanted to hurt Eight Belles. Gabriel Saez is an innocent man, and I hope that this tragedy doesn’t destroy his spirit or passion for horses and racing.

As long as there are sports, there will be risks. We can do what we can to reduce those, but in the end we have to accept that bodies (human or animal) are not perfect. We’re made of things that bend and stretch, but sometimes break.

My hope today is that something good can come out of this. The Kentucky Horse Racing Authority should take some time to evaluate problems and concerns regarding the sport. I would like to see more money provided for veterinary research so that a broken leg in a horse doesn’t mean the end of a life.

Things can only move forward now. The choice is between moving blindly forward, or making positive changes. I hope the racing community makes the right decision.

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