Eight Belles memorialized at Derby Museum

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Larry Jones stood at the podium, his voice breaking ever so slightly. Even now, four months later, the veteran trainer finds it difficult to talk about the death of Eight Belles.

"It still tears me up as bad as the day that it happened," Jones said Sunday after a memorial service for the filly at the Kentucky Derby Museum, a furlong or two from the track where she ran her final race. "But I do feel now that some things are coming in order and we know that (the racing industry) is going to be better because of Eight Belles."

The 3-year-old broke both front ankles moments after finishing second to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby and was euthanized on the Churchill Downs track. The sudden, freakish death started a debate that has led to talk of major reform in an industry slow to change.

Sunday, though, was about remembering the horse that became just the fifth filly to crack the top two spots in the Derby. More than 200 fans, some from New York and South Carolina, crammed the small courtyard outside the museum in honor of the big gray horse who proved she could run with the boys.

Flowers and cards surrounded the plaque above her grave, including a small bouquet of red roses from the Fans of Barbaro, a support group formed after 2006 Derby winner Barbaro broke down during the Preakness.

"It's a tribute to how many people really care about this sport," said Eight Belles owner Rick Porter. "Eight Belles touched a lot of hearts."

Jones, who along with jockey Gabriel Saez came under heavy fire after the Derby, received a standing ovation while he spoke. Jones endured the brunt of racing critics angry over the second high-profile breakdown during a Triple Crown race in three years and called the days following the Derby the most trying of his career.

Critics charged Jones with injecting Eight Belles with steroids and argued Saez worked the whip too forcefully in the final yards. A steroids test came back negative, and Jones defended Saez's ride. That didn't stop the letters of protest from filling Jones' mailbox as he found himself becoming the chief defender for the sport's many problems.

"We felt like we had to defend horse racing ourselves and all the things on it," Jones said. "I'm glad we could do it. Did any of the other 19 horses at the Derby voice up and said 'My horse wasn't on steroids either'? … They may not have been, but they didn't voice up. Maybe we were the only one that could do it, maybe not. We all knew what the rules of horse racing were, and nobody broke the rules."

The rules, however, are changing, thanks in part to Eight Belles' death. More than 10 states have adopted a steroid ban, including Kentucky, where Gov. Steve Beshear enacted an emergency order last week that outlaws anabolic steroids.

Porter is pleased with the progress to address drugs and medication, but is worried support will wane when the public's attention is diverted.

"I don't think we've done anything really but form some committees, and it's already drifted away," Porter said.

Porter thinks the federal government should mandate change and force the industry's hand by creating a national racing commission.

"We need a commissioner," Porter said. "We need to have everybody accountable to one (governing body)."

Porter has created an Eight Belles Foundation, which will benefit horse rescue and medical research. Churchill Downs Inc. has donated $25,000 to the fund, and the track will rename a stakes race on Derby Day in her honor.

"It's going to make the racing game better for all of her equine peers," Jones said. "They might not have to go through some of the things that horses in the past have. The game is much better now than it was 50 years ago, but it's going to be better and better and better."