LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Eight Belles was grabbing all the real estate she could as she pounded down the front stretch in a long-striding effort to catch the amazing Big Brown as he streaked toward victory.
It was a race Big Brown would win by 4 3/4 lengths, but Eight Belles had shown her stamina and determination, and the 157,770 fans at Churchill Downs for the 134th Kentucky Derby went crazy as the favorite and the only filly in the race came home 1-2.
And then the unthinkable happened. As Eight Belles galloped out around the first turn, she stopped, went to her knees and then collapsed on the track.
Eight Belles, a big, strapping daughter of Unbridled's Song who was attempting to become the fourth filly to win the Derby, had broken both of her front ankles.
She was immediately euthanized.
"There was no reason to wait," said Dr. Larry Bramlage, the American Association of Equine Practitioners veterinarian on call.
In the stands, trainer Larry Jones saw his filly cross the finish line with her ears up, in no distress, and he left elated, having seen Eight Belles join Hard Spun as a second-place finisher for him in back-to-back Derbys. It wasn't until he got to the track that he discovered that a horse had gone down, that Eight Belles was the horse, and, then, the unthinkable, that she had been euthanized.
"I was shocked," Jones said. "Put her down? We're used to trying to save them now. But when I did see her, there was no doubt it had to be done."
Bramlage, who has been working at racetracks since 1975, said he had never seen a horse injured like this.
"That late after crossing the wire. I was watching, and everyone looked like they were galloping out cleanly," he said as he stood on Churchill Downs' front stretch shortly after the incident. "And then we hear the outrider say with shock, 'The five's legs, the filly's legs are collapsing.' "
The vet paused.
"Sometimes, rarely, you might see a horse suffer something in one leg. But I've never seen it happen in both like that."
Eight Belles is the second top 3-year-old in three years to be euthanized after injuries in a Triple Crown race. Barbaro, the 2006 Derby winner, suffered a shattered left front leg in the Preakness Stakes two weeks after winning here.
It was only the quick thinking of his jockey, Edgar Prado, who was able to pull the horse up quickly, that gave Barbaro a chance to fight for his life. But eight months later, Barbaro was euthanized after complications from laminitis ended all hope of his recovery.
Yesterday, Eight Belles' jockey Gabriel Saez, 20, had no warning.
"After we passed the wire, I stood up," Saez said. "She started galloping funny, and I tried to pull her up, but she went down."
Saez didn't even stop to change his clothes before leaving the track.
Prado, who finished 19th on Adriano, was subdued as he prepared for a ride in the next race.
"It's very sad," he said. "I really can't talk about it. I don't want to recall what I saw. It is something that is just very sad."
Jones said he has no second thoughts about the decision to run the filly against the colts, but he could not keep the emotion from his voice.
"She went out in glory," he said. "She went out as a champion. Maybe one day we'll know why this happened. We know a lot of good things came from Barbaro's story. We don't know what will happen with the Eight Belles story. Maybe something good will come - or maybe nothing and it will just be the worst day of our lives."