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Monday, May 5, 2008
Eight Belles' trainer takes issue with PETA's call for Saez suspension

ESPN.com news services

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The trainer of euthanized filly Eight Belles adamantly defended the way jockey Gabriel Saez handled the Kentucky Derby runner-up.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, Larry Jones said Saez applied the whip only to prevent Eight Belles from crashing into the rail.

"This filly in every race has tried to drift toward the rail," Jones said. "It's her comfort zone, and Gabriel knows this. This kid made every move the right move, and I hate it that they're wanting to jump down his throat. He did not try to abuse that horse to make her run faster. He knew he was second best, that she wasn't going to catch Big Brown."

Jones spoke while traveling from Churchill Downs to Delaware with his other prized filly, Kentucky Oaks winner Proud Spell. Jones is scheduled to have a news conference Tuesday at Delaware Park.

Saez, a 20-year-old Panama native, was riding in his first Kentucky Derby. He frequently rides for Jones.

"I remain heartbroken over Eight Belles, and I want to let her many fans know that she never gave me the slightest indication before or during the race that there was anything bothering her," Saez said in a statement released Tuesday from Delaware Park. "All I could sense under me was how eager she was to race. I was so proud of her performance, and of the opportunity to ride her in my first Kentucky Derby, all of which adds to my sadness.

"Riding right now at Delaware Park and being around the horses and other jockeys is good therapy for me, but I hope the media understands that I prefer not to conduct interviews at this time. Please respect my decision while I mourn my personal loss."

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for Saez to be suspended, contending he should have noticed an injury and pulled the horse up rather than applied the whip. Calls Monday to the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority were not immediately returned.

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"What we really want to know, did he feel anything along the way?" PETA spokeswoman Kathy Guillermo said. "If he didn't then we can probably blame the fact that they're allowed to whip the horses mercilessly."

Eight Belles broke both front ankles while galloping out a quarter-mile past the finish line and was euthanized on the track. Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said there will be an autopsy to determine cause of death.

KHRA executive director Lisa Underwood said Monday that racing stewards found no evidence of wrongdoing by Saez. The authority also released a statement responding to PETA's proposals, arguing that many of them were premature or unnecessary.

Jones said he has watched the race from various angles and found that not only did Saez do nothing wrong, but everything right.

"We're putting him on multimillion-dollar horses, and I think this kid represented our business as professionally as could be run," he said. "If I were to run in the Derby tomorrow, I'd put him right back on my horse."

Jones acknowledged changes could made to make the sport safer, although he doubts any would have saved his filly from what he called a freak injury.

Stewards could, for example, mandate lighter whips or riding crops, Jones said. However, he said his training program takes great care to make sure no horse is abused, even in a rush for the finish.

Jones said some of his horses don't respond to the whip at all. In fact, this year Jones petitioned officials at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas to let him send out a jockey without one. Jones' petition was accepted despite initial concern the jockey wouldn't be able to control the horse.

"My horses don't come back from races with welts on their body," Jones said. "Very seldom do we find a mark on these horses. I don't think we need to make [the whips] out of foam rubber, but you could get to a happy medium where you know it's not going to hurt them and the horse would still know what you want them to do."

Waldrop said one of PETA's suggestions, that whips should be banned, would cause horses to be out of control on the track, producing far more injuries.

"Forcing a jockey to give up a whip would be like forcing a NASCAR driver to give up his steering wheel," Waldrop said.

Guillermo said if Saez is found at fault, the group wants the second-place prize of $400,000 won by Eight Belles to be revoked.

Eight Belles
Filly Eight Belles broke both front ankles after the wire in the Kentucky Derby. She was euthanized on the track while Big Brown's victory was celebrated.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, expressed frustration Monday, saying the sport should be pushed to do more to protect horses.

"This industry has not had a rigorous critic to set it in the straight and narrow, and major problems have grown and festered," Pacelle said in a statement. "It's time for the thoroughbred industry to deal with its problems, and if it does not, animal advocates may well decide they can no longer continue to give the industry a free pass.

"Here are some of the historic problems: Drugging of injured horses to keep them running, which makes vulnerable horses more susceptible to breakdowns. Racing horses too young. Because the marquee events feature 3-year-olds, these horses must start racing at the tender age of 2 years, and that's well before their skeletal systems are sturdy enough to endure the pounding from the rigors of the race track. And third, racing horses on track surfaces that are not forgiving -- with American tracks favoring dirt surfaces over grass or synthetics.

"And then there are the problems coming to light more than ever -- problems related to breeding. Breeding too many horses, and waiting for someone else to clean up the problem. And breeding them for body characteristics that make these animals vulnerable to breakdowns, especially those spindly legs on top of these stout torsos."

Dr. Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian at Churchill Downs during the Derby, acknowledged there was merit to that argument. He suggested there should be more financial incentives for horses who display longevity, rather than just the ability to come up big in one huge race.

"The value of a horse is no longer related to how much he can win on the racetrack," Bramlage said. "It's related to how likely he can get you to one of those events. The breed creeps toward a faster and faster individual, but that individual may be brilliant because they have a lighter skeleton. We're inadvertently selecting for the wrong thing."

As for the prospect of changing dirt tracks to synthetic ones, Jones said he supports continued research on how that will improve safety. He insisted, however, the track at Churchill Downs was not to blame for the loss of Eight Belles.

"Churchill's track was as close to perfect on Saturday as it could be," he said. "The moisture in it was wonderful."

Jones said he hadn't yet decided where Proud Spell would run next but acknowledged the loss of Eight Belles has taken a toll on his team.

"I'm sure the way this affects us mentally, we'll probably bounce too far to the conservative line for a little while, being probably too safe on our horses," he said. "We're having a hard time getting this in perspective and behind us. These horses are very dear to us. I never got to say goodbye to her."

PETA's letter to Kentucky's racing authority also sought a ban on whipping, limits on races and the age of racehorses, and a move to softer, artificial surfaces for all courses.

But to horse people like Rick Dutrow Jr., who trains Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown, it wasn't all that simple.

"To make it safer, don't race the horses, don't train them, then they'll live good lives out on the farm," Dutrow said.

"But you have to train them for races, you have to run them and that's where the problems start to set in. They have to be asked to run and sometimes in a particular minute, they're asked to run when they're not ready to give it and then it hurts."

While Big Brown's bid to become the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years will certainly gain momentum in the next couple of weeks, Eight Belles and the sight of fans crying in the stands at Churchill Downs remained a focal point Sunday.

Churchill Downs officials were unsure whether there had been a fatality in the Kentucky Derby. Superintendent Butch Lehr said there hadn't been one in his 41 years at the track.

The death of Eight Belles may have been rare because it occurred well after the finish line, but it's just the latest trauma to happen at a major race on national television.

Two years ago, Derby winner Barbaro shattered his right rear leg at the start of the Preakness, with more than 100,000 people gasping at the site of the undefeated colt in distress as he was led into an equine ambulance. Barbaro was euthanized eight months later after developing laminitis as a result of the injuries.

"It's difficult to accept, and we don't have all the answers," Scott Palmer, a veterinarian who helped attend to Barbaro on the track at Pimlico, said Sunday. "It's shocking to see something like that."

Barbaro's demise helped push forward the installation of synthetic surfaces to replace traditional dirt tracks at several tracks, including Keeneland, Santa Anita, Arlington Park, Hollywood Park, Golden Gate Fields, Del Mar, Turfway and Presque Isle. A new on-track injury reporting program seems to indicate the surface is having the desired effect.

Reports by veterinarians at 34 tracks across the country between June 2007 and early this year showed synthetic tracks averaged 1.47 fatalities per 1,000 starts, compared with 2.03 fatalities per 1,000 starts for horses that ran on dirt.

But not everyone is convinced.

"This is a very big issue and needs to be discussed," two-time Derby winning trainer Nick Zito said. "You're changing the whole game. Big Brown ran on dirt [Saturday], he's going for history. You can't tell me the Polytrack is history. It's not yet, there isn't enough data yet."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.