Trainer Larry Jones was riding high for 24 hours.
In 2008, Jones’ Proud Spell won the Kentucky Oaks. In the Kentucky Derby, his entry was Eight Belles—a horse that became a focus of attention.
She’d performed well in workouts, but she was also vying to become just the fourth filly to win the sports’ most famous race in 134 tries.
“She became a fan favorite,” Jones told WFPL.
The Kentucky Derby gates opened for the 2008 Derby. What followed is among the most dramatic shifts in fortune in sports history—plus navel-gazing for the thoroughbred racing industry and heaps of negative attention aimed mostly at Jones and others around the horse.
Eight Belles came very close to victory, finishing second only to Big Brown, who’d also win the Preakness Stakes and become the Eclipse Award’s male 3-year-old horse of the year.
Then Eight Belles crashed to the dirt. She’d broken two ankles after crossing the finish line—and was euthanized on the track.
Criticism—from the corners of the media and the public—was aimed at the use of steroids on thoroughbreds, though Jones said Eight Belles hadn’t use them. Steroids have since been banned. Others questioned whether fillies should run against colts, though research suggests that fillies aren’t more prone to injury when they race against male horses.
“I think it was pretty obvious when it was all over,” Jones said. “She didn’t come over just to run around the track. She came there to run. Eighteen boys got to chase her around through there, and it appears the one who beat her could be a very special horse.”
In 2008, 36 horses suffered fatal injuries at Kentucky racetracks.
But only one of those happened on horseracing’s most visible day—when more than 150,000 people are watching live and millions are watching on television.
Mary Scollay, equine medicine director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, says serious injuries to high-profile horses such as Eight Belles and 2006 Derby winner Barbaro have spurred greater attention on safety for horses—and some reforms.
“Her injuries caused everybody to take a long hard look at their own procedures and practices and protocols to determine if there was anything that could be done to improve safety,” Scollay said. I think one of the things it also did was it caused to look scientifically at some of the injury data to respond to some assertions that were made.
““You see something like that and it just hits you in the gut.”
The industry now keeps better track of injuries, and pre-race examinations have been improved. Steroids were banned and rules for other medication have been adjusted. Jockeys’ riding crops now must have more padding.
Many of those changes were already in the works before Eight Belles’ death, she noted.
Fatal race-related injuries have decreased in Kentucky since 2008.
In 2012, 26 horses suffered injuries in or after races that led to death, according to statistics provided by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority.
So far in 2013, four horses have suffered fatal race-related injuries.
It’s difficult to know if the decrease in fatal race injuries is related to any of the recent reforms, Scollay said.
Not long after Eight Belles’ injury, Jones retired because of an illness. He’s since returned to training thoroughbreds, though he has no horse in this year’s Oaks or Derby. To this day, Jones doesn’t need prodding to defend his record with Eight Belles; he noted that Eight Belles underwent more tests for drugs than required for the Derby.
He said he entered Eight Belles in the Derby because she thought she could win—and he still speaks glowingly of her. Elegant. Composed. Strong.
He has a photo of her running in the Derby, about 70 yards from the finish line.
She’s got her ears up, she’s happy as can be,” Jones said.
What happened after she crossed the finish line was but a freak accident.
Thoroughbreds sustain injuries, just like humans, Jones says. He notes the broken leg Louisville Cardinals guard Kevin Ware suffered in this year’s Final Four.
“How many times have guys run up and down the floor, jumped landed but never break a leg? But he did,” Jones said.
“It’s the same situation. If you’re an athlete, sometimes things happen.”
The difference is that certain injuries can’t be treated for horses.