Eight Belles gave Derby's most valiant effort

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Big Brown won the 134th Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs. Obviously, he came as advertised, arriving at the wire comfortably ahead, in what was only the fourth race of his career. He upheld every confident prediction made by his trainer, Rick Dutrow, during the week leading up to the Derby. He overcame a prodigious collection of historical obstacles and won from Post 20 with unmitigated authority.

The most valiant effort in the Derby, however, was not Big Brown's. He established his superiority with aplomb.

Eight Belles ran her heart out -- and she was all heart. Eighteen males finished behind her. The nearest, Denis of Cork, was 2¾ lengths in her wake and overmatched, while the others staggered toward the wire outclassed not only by Big Brown, but by the only filly in the field whose effort will be remembered in eulogy rather than history.

Eight Belles' heart carried her to places she had never been, surrounded by a thundering phalanx of horses, racing a distance that carried them all into the unknown, well beyond any in her experience. For every stride of 10 furlongs she gave everything she had, then, the race over, a statement made in exclamation, she gave her life.

Eight Belles ran on with a courageous determination seen in few horses -- the best horses, the horses you remember -- running the race of her life, which would not see another sunrise. She followed the early speed, and ran past them when they tired. Though Big Brown ran past her -- no horse was going to beat Big Brown on Saturday -- the others never threatened Eight Belles.

Thirty-nine fillies have run in the Derby. Three won. Only one other, Lady Navarre in 1906, finished second. After delivering what was by any measure a truly remarkable effort -- one of the five best by a female in the Derby in 134 years -- Eight Belles galloped beyond the wire and around the clubhouse turn beneath jockey Gabriel Saez. Entering the backstretch, her front ankles collapsed simultaneously. While a crowd of 157,770 thundered in salute to Big Brown's victory, she fell.

"She started galloping funny and I tried to pull her up," Saez said, "but she went down."

When veterinarians reached the spot at which the gunmetal-grey filly lay motionless, there was no choice. Eight Belles was euthanized. Her heart had carried her to a place beyond where her legs were meant to go.

"She didn't have a leg to stand on," said Dr. Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian who represents the American Association of Equine Practitioners. "In my years in racing, I have never seen this happen. This was tough enough had it been one, but it happened in both and it happened on the same stride. She just collapsed right in front of the outrider, so there was not really any warning.

"When horses really tire they are taking a lot of load on the skeleton because their muscles are fatigued. So, we will occasionally see a catastrophic injury after the wire, when the horse is slowing down. The difficult thing to explain with her is that it was so far after the wire and she was easing down like you'd like to see a horse slow down by that point. Then, all of a sudden, she goes over the brink in both legs. I don't have an explanation because I have no background to draw on. I've never seen anything like this before."

Trainer Larry Jones, awaiting the return of the filly to be unsaddled, was celebrating her effort a year after Hard Spun, whom he trained for the same owner, finished second in the 2007 Derby, unaware of the cruel fate that met Eight Belles until he saw Saez return on the back of a pony ridden by broadcaster Donna Brothers.

"We were kind of high-fiving. But then horses came back, were unsaddled and led off the track. Someone said, 'That's your rider on that pony,'" Jones said. "I said, 'What's up?' He gave me a hug and said, 'Mr. Larry, they put her down.' Both cannon bones were broken when I got to her."

It is not insignificant that Eight Belles was withdrawn from Friday's Kentucky Oaks, which was won by her stablemate, Proud Spell. But a decision by owner Rick Porter to run probably the best 3-year-old filly in the nation against 19 males in the Derby put her in the precarious position that she overcame on sheer talent at the cost of her life. She proved her owner's point, but the cost was far too great.

"She ran the race of her life," Jones said. "We were through racing; all we had to do was come home. There's a reason for everything, but I see no reason for this. The main thing is that she didn't suffer. She went out in a blaze of glory. … Losing an animal like this …

"I don't know what to say."

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at paulmoran47@hotmail.com.