Regarding Eight Belles

Regarding the amazing filly Eight Belles

by Joell Dunlap

I was out on a trail ride with students when the Kentucky Derby ran this year. Upon our return to the ranch, I rushed inside to watch the replay of the race on my computer. Big Brown owned the race from start to finish and showed the world that we may have a true phenom on our hands. No surprise to me who has admired the colt for some time. The real treat was watching the valiant filly Three Belles chase the colt down the stretch as the other horses tired. I emerged from my office to tell my students that Big Brown was “the real deal” and that the only horse to be brave enough to give him chase was a fantastic dark gray filly named Eight Belles. I was gloating as I brushed my own haughty OTTB mare Gigi.

“Um, Joell, I guess you didn’t see after the race” one of the mothers said with veiled eyes. “The filly broke down after the finish and had to be destroyed.”

I couldn’t speak.

After the girls left, I dragged myself back to my office to get the whole story. Sure enough, I found a news story with a photo of the filly, lying on the track with racetrack personnel holding her head the way you do when you need the horse to stay down, because their legs are destroyed and you have to deliver mercy as quickly as possible.

I’ve been there.

For two summers, I drove that van that followed the races and carried the veterinarian armed with splints and the case of the lethal injection. Each race, I’d drive the vet around behind the last horse just praying that we wouldn’t be needed.

Every morning, I ran from barn to barn riding any horse that somebody would pay me to ride. I was tough, I was brave, I was scared all the time. I lived with fear and excitement in my belly every moment.

I’ve defended racing for so many years now that it’s almost automatic. I know that the animals are pampered and revered. I’ve seen first hand owners that “love their horses” and are dedicated to, if not caring for their horses for life, at least to finding them homes when their careers are over. Sadly, these owners are the exception and not the rule. What is not exceptional is a horse that loves to run, lives to sprint and craves the race. There are lots of them.

Gentle reader, let me disabuse you of a few notions:

* Eight Belles’ jockey never hit her in the last 1/16 mile of the race. She was not going to catch Big Brown and her rider knew that. He urged her on with 5 whips between the 1/4 pole and the 1/8 pole. Less than most of the other riders chasing the filly.

* Eight Belles ran a gutsy race that she was well qualified for. She was much the best of the remaining 19 horses in the race who were 19 of the best 3 year olds in the world.

* The track surface of Churchill Downs was maintained as meticulously as humans can manage a track.

* The drug testing of racehorses is extremely stringent. There are very few allowable medications and the two main ones are not much stronger than extra strength Tylenol for humans. If only baseball players had to go through the rigorous drug testing that a $5,000 claiming horse did, we might have a different game.

What I also know is that I immediately left my computer screen after reading the story and ran into the stall of “Will Daisy Do” a recent arrival to Square Pegs. Like Eight Belles, she is a beautiful 3 year old Tb filly. In her racing debut, she suffered a fracture of her tibia. Unlike Eight Belles, she’s going to be okay with a bit of rest and a lot of patience and retraining. Daisy is the sweetest filly at the ranch. She snuggles anyone who will stand next to her and will breathe sweetly into your neck and then offer you her big pink tongue to pull and scratch. There isn’t a daylight hour that goes by without little girl squeals coming from Daisy’s corner of the barn as she tugs at the shoelace or the jacket hood of some visitor to the ranch. You have to see it to believe it. After spending time with Daisy, I went to pet Stan who fractured his leg twice and then underwent throat surgery that didn’t heal correctly. Stan had a half brother in last year’s Derby. He’s racing royalty by way of breeding, but he was discarded when his injuries piled up. There’s Poppy with no racing talent, Sam who is full of hardware in his knees and ankles, but he never seems to complain, Hank who I think could run a hole in the wind, but he’s always been tricky. These, and the others at the ranch are racings’ castoffs and our treasures.

Like you, I’m struggling with what seems like a senseless death. I’d love to find someone to blame, rout out the greedy forces that caused her demise and feel vindicated. But perhaps more senseless are the horses that don’t make names for themselves at the track and end up at slaughterhouses. For the twelve OTTB’s at Square Pegs, they have a home no matter what. It helps. It makes the world of difference to those dozen. I had to stand in Daisy’s presence and celebrate the fact that she was safe and loved. That she would never have to prove herself again on the track. She was alive and that was enough.

I don’t think that the question is about the relative safety of racing. Surely, the recent deaths in 3-Day Eventing that are covered in the horse magazines make us question all of the horse sports — and we should. What happened to that fantastic filly is a tragedy not only for the millions of people watching as for the owners, trainer and his staff, for racing and certainly for the filly herself. She died doing what she was bred, trained and loved to do. If you have seen coverage of her prior four races, you will see the same grit and determination she showed in the Derby.

The tragic death of an athlete in her prime always calls us to value what we have and to acknowledge that life is precious and very, very fragile. Nothing we do will bring Eight Belles back, nor Ruffian or Go For Wand. I wept for all three. Each a giant who put her life on the line against the boys, against the odds and each inspired me to be not only a better horse-person, but a better athlete and a better woman. And if you disagree that these three fallen gals aren’t athletes to be revered, take note that Go For Wand was voted one of the top 100 Thoroughbred horses of the century and Ruffian was voted among the top female athletes of the century by Sports Illustrated.

While this isn’t the perfect poem to close with, it’s close:

To An Athlete Dying Young by A. E. Housman

THE time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away

From fields where glory does not stay,

And early though the laurel grows

It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut

Cannot see the record cut,

And silence sounds no worse than cheers

After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout

Of lads that wore their honours out,

Runners whom renown outran

And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,

The fleet foot on the sill of shade,

And hold to the low lintel up

The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head

Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,

And find unwithered on its curls

The garland briefer than a girl’s.

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