Saturday, May 3, 2008
Tragedy takes the gloss off Big Brown's dazzling win
By Pat Forde ESPN.com
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Thoroughbred racing at its best. Thoroughbred racing at its worst.
In a jarring matter of moments, the Kentucky Derby gave us both. It gave us an overpowering tour de force from Big Brown, stomping the competition despite inexperience and unfavorable post position. And it gave us a fatal injury after the race, when filly Eight Belles followed a sensational effort of her own to finish second by fracturing both ankles, falling to the track and being euthanized on the spot.
Brilliance and brittleness. Triumph and tragedy. A superstar performance and a ghastly postscript. It was an evening of violent mood swings at Churchill Downs.
But that's horse racing, a sport in which the good news never seems able to outrun the bad news. For every new fan turned on to the game by Big Brown's fluidity and immense talent, two might be lost because of Eight Belles' awful ending. Especially coming two years after Derby champion Barbaro broke down two weeks later in the Preakness.
There isn't a huge appetite in this country for sports in which animal death is a routine part of the equation. It's a tired and troubling part of the racing script.
But the Derby, the sport's high holy day, has always been blessed in that area. It doesn't happen here -- not on the first Saturday in May, at least. If another Derby horse has died on the Churchill Downs dirt, nobody can remember it.
The last time a Derby horse went down was 1974, when Flip Sal "went lame" according to the race chart, and was pulled up. In 1970, Holy Land clipped heels with another horse on the second turn and fell. In 1932, Liberty Limited broke down, and Busy American did the same in 1922.
Kent Desormeaux rode into Triple Crown contention aboard Big Brown in the Derby Saturday, but for the first time in years a Run for the Roses was saddened by tragedy.
Now death has come to the Derby. The only mild redemption was the fact that Eight Belles went down almost at the end of the turn, far from the throng in the grandstand and after most TV cameras had stopped tracking the horses. This was, at least, not a moment of nationally televised carnage.
The Churchill grandstand still was crackling with electricity after Big Brown's charge down the stretch when the ominous signs of trouble appeared. First one equine ambulance sped down the stretch and around the first turn. Then a second.
Slowly, word spread.
"It's the filly," said Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Jody Demling, taking off in a grim sprint to the scene.
Eight Belles' trainer, Larry Jones, didn't even know at that point. He'd pushed through a throng of people to get down from the grandstand to the track, and actually was laughing with fellow trainer Steve Asmussen as he started walking to make the routine postrace check on his horse and to talk to his young jockey, Gabriel Saez.
At that point, Jones was giddy about his continued Derby weekend success. He finished a surprise second last year with Hard Spun, and won the Kentucky Oaks Friday with Proud Spell. Finishing second again with this gifted filly was quite a coup.
"We were kind of high-fiving," Jones said.
But then Jones said he saw winning jockey Kent Desormeaux riding back on Big Brown and thought something didn't seem right.
"It wasn't like he'd just won the Kentucky Derby," Jones said. "He was a little bit solemn."
Desormeaux had seen Eight Belles go down right by him as Big Brown galloped out.
After that, Saez returned to the front side on the horse ridden by NBC on-track reporter Donna Brothers. Jones said Saez told him, "Mr. Larry, they put her down."
Jones sprinted ahead and caught a ride on one of the ambulances to the scene, where he knew very quickly that euthanizing Eight Belles was the only decision to make. The injuries were profound: condylar fractures of both front legs, a dislocated left ankle and an additional sesamoid fracture of the right front.
"It had to be done," Jones said. "She had no way of being saved. There was no decision to be made. She didn't need to suffer, and she wasn't going to suffer."
Track veterinarian Larry Bramlage, who was the vet on the scene and a veteran of many racing injuries, said he'd never encountered a horse suffering fatal wounds so far after a race.
"It's something I would never even have considered," Bramlage said. "She appeared to be galloping out fine. I've never seen this before."
Jones, at times choking up with grief, said he's convinced Eight Belles was not in any distress during the race. An examination of the replay shows that she jerked her head to the right rather severely in the stretch, then drifted in to the rail. That could be an indication of an injury. But Eight Belles appeared to run smoothly through the wire and Jones said the head jerk is something she's done before.
"I have not got to see one replay," Jones acknowledged. "She ran the exact same way at Oaklawn when she won the Fantasy [Stakes]. It's just a habit she's gotten into, to get to the rail.
"If she had shown any sign of distress and was losing ground [in the stretch], I would have really second-guessed ourselves severely and kicked myself in the pants. But this filly hit the ground running and after the wire was galloping out well."
It will take a while to sort through the emotions conjured on this beautiful Kentucky Saturday. We might have seen equine greatness, but the human connections to Big Brown are hard to love, and then there was the tragic aftermath.
Big Brown delivered a Barbaro-sized performance, crushing the field despite starting from Post 20 in the 20-horse field -- that's just barely inside Central Avenue, the street that runs past the front door of Churchill. The undefeated colt will be a mortal lock to win the Preakness, given the fact that he finished 8¼ lengths ahead of his nearest living competitor, third-place finisher Denis of Cork.
And then what could Brown do for you? He could win the Triple Crown. While we've been dealt a series of massive teases in that department over the past 30 years, Big Brown might be the drought breaker.
For one thing, he's sensationally talented. For another, his 3-year-old competition is not. It's incredibly hard for a modern-day thoroughbred to win three major races in five weeks -- and trainer Rick Dutrow generally prefers running his horses once every 40 days or so -- but the Triple Crown has rarely looked this attainable since Affirmed last did it in 1978.
"Talentwise, he's the best horse I've ever ridden," said Desormeaux, and that's a significant statement. Desormeaux came within a nose of winning the Triple Crown in 1998 aboard Real Quiet.
"That horse is going to win the Triple Crown!" a fan yelled at Dutrow as he walked back through the Churchill paddock an hour after the race.
"I hope you're right," Dutrow shot back.
It was an uncharacteristically understated remark from Dutrow. He talked a huge game leading up to this game, saying that post position would not matter and that only a bad break could get Big Brown beaten.
Boy, was he right. Big Brown handled the bad post with ease, cruising five wide and then putting down the hammer -- first for a brief burst at the top of the far turn, and then in the stretch.
So far, so perfect for this strapping colt who has won four lifetime races by a combined 33¾ lengths. Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.
"When he turned for home, I knew the game was over," Dutrow said. "We were going crazy. I just saw Brown kicking ass through the lane. That's all I saw."
What the rest of the racing game saw was a trainer with a rap sheet longer than "Kent Desormeaux" win the Kentucky Derby. Dutrow has been fined and suspended dozens of times in his career, sometimes for drugging himself and sometimes for drugging his horses. He says he's gotten his personal life in better shape, but documents from the Association of Racing Commissioners International show that he's gotten in trouble every year this decade when it comes to medicating his horses.
Combine that with a Big Brown ownership group that is starting a horse racing version of a hedge fund. It's not exactly 90-year-old France Genter covering her mouth with glee watching Unbridled win the 1990 Derby.
But the true stars of racing are the animals, and Big Brown could be the horse the game has been waiting for. On a bittersweet day in Louisville, that's the good news. You can decide whether that's enough to outweigh the bad news.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.