Protecting the health of our equine athletes

The Baltimore Sun

Eight Belles was just a few yards in front of me when she collapsed after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby on May 3.

As I eased up my horse, Adriano, who had finished next to last, I saw the filly stumble and fall as she galloped out. I prayed she was just tired, just as I had prayed that Barbaro wasn't seriously injured when I felt him go weak underneath me in the first 100 yards of the 2006 Preakness Stakes.

As everyone knows, it turned out Barbaro had suffered a catastrophic injury that eventually led to his demise, and I knew Eight Belles was in similar trouble when I watched her struggle to get up. She fell back, obviously unable to bear weight on her front ankles - then tried to rise and fell back again.

My heart ached as I watched the equine ambulances speeding toward her, taking me back to that sad day at Pimlico Race Course when I had to stop Barbaro. When doctors discovered that Eight Belles was, in fact, severely injured, she was humanely euthanized.

Barbaro's injury started an important national conversation about what causes horses to break down. The racing industry reacted in positive ways. The installation of synthetic racing surfaces at nine major American tracks has resulted in fewer catastrophic injuries, according to a new reporting system overseen by the Jockey Club, the governing body of American horse racing.

Eight Belles' demise has people talking again about what the industry can do to keep its horses safe. I would love to see it devise a single set of rules, in effect nationwide, governing the use of medication and overall treatment and care of horses. As it is, some are pushed beyond their limits, given medication so they don't feel pain and can run when they shouldn't. This would happen less if every state operated under the same rules.

No matter what the industry does, though, we'll likely never know what caused Barbaro or Eight Belles to break down. In my experience, which includes more than 25,000 races, it is the champions that push themselves to their physical limits, sometimes with fateful consequences.

Horses love to run; if you leave them alone in a field, they naturally start competing. But run-of-the-mill horses can go around and around a track without anything bad ever happening. They don't push themselves to go faster and do better. They recoil from pain and slow down.

Those horses know their limits. That's why they're on the bench, as opposed to in the game, when the big races come up.

Great horses such as Eight Belles are different. They aren't just faster; they have a competitive instinct that makes them want to finish first. It doesn't matter whether their jockey touches them. It doesn't matter how long the race is. They want to run in front of a pack, and they'll put themselves on the line physically to do so.

Even after Barbaro's right rear leg bones shattered into 27 pieces that day at Pimlico, he kept running on three legs, trying to stay up with the other horses in the race. He wanted to keep going. He wanted to be in front.

Eight Belles finished second in the Derby, but she put forth a magnificent effort. She finished ahead of 18 colts - far ahead, in some cases. Coming through the stretch with her legs pumping, her eyes focused and her competitors falling away, she was a breathtaking vision of pure athleticism.

Then, suddenly, she was down.

In the vast majority of instances, these champion horses don't injure themselves going all out. But we should continue to focus on doing all we can to help them stay healthy. For me - and for many people, I'm sure - Eight Belles' downfall brought back memories of Barbaro. A great occasion had gone horribly awry. A great athlete had succumbed.

There is nothing sadder.

Edgar Prado is the author, with former Sun sportswriter John Eisenberg, of "My Guy

Barbaro: A Jockey's Journey Through Love, Triumph, and Heartbreak with America's Favorite Horse." He can be contacted through Mr. Eisenberg also contributed to this article.

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