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From the Derby to the Preakness

Why Eight Belles broke America’s heart

by Aloysia C. Hamalainen

When the horses burst from the gates of the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown, at Baltimore’s Pimlico Racetrack Saturday, May 17, fans like me will hold our breath until every horse gets safely home.

This year, the dizzy celebrations and over-the-top excitement that began with the Kentucky Derby, continue with the Preakness and culminate in the Belmont Stakes will have a wary edge. On Thoroughbred racing’s most popular day, American race lovers saw the horrible death of one of the sport’s rising stars, the grand filly Eight Belles.

It was incomprehensible that the filly shattered both her front legs after crossing the finish line. The jockey rode a masterful race, the horse ran brilliantly, and there was no bumping or conflict. What happened?

My 50 years of riding, training, breeding and caring for horses has taught me that they are mind-bogglingly delicate. Their bodies are so finely balanced that the slightest upsets, too much or too little food or exercise, can, simply, kill them.

The American Thoroughbred is a masterpiece of human manipulation of the equine. They are bred to run, with longer legs, bigger hearts and lungs and streamlined muscles. And they love to run. But they are pushed to their extreme capability at a very young age. Their bones are not finished growing; their knees are not fused.

Eight Belles was born in early 2005 and started training in late 2006. She ran her first race when she was barely two years old, and she ran nine races before the Kentucky Derby. She won five firsts, two seconds, a third and a seventh. She was, as one race note said, “dazzling.”

She was also huge, standing 17.1 hands tall (at four inches per hand). Thoroughbreds typically range from 15.3 hands to 16.2 hands. From her size and winning record, it is easy to see why her trainer felt she could compete against colts. Fillies and colts typically race separately because the colts mature faster, but Eight Belles’ stride could match a colt’s. And she did. She ran second in the Derby behind the amazing Big Brown (who had raced only three times before the Derby because of his own foot problems.)

Youth and size are elements of what went wrong. A racehorse weighs between 800 and 1,000 pounds, proportional to its height. The bigger the horse, the more pressure on bones and ankles that are not much bigger than your own. At full speed, the full weight of the horse and jockey lands on one ankle at a time in sequence. Eight Belles’ front legs simply shattered.

Why couldn’t they save her? Could a sling have supported her until she healed? Another aspect of the delicacy of horses is that they have to stand, and walk, to live. Slings sometimes work for horses needing help in standing because their legs are damaged. Eight Belles’ legs had essentially broken off. She could not be lifted; she could not stand.

Horse’s legs also play an essential part in blood circulation. The bottom of a horse’s hoof is a super-tough and flexible tissue called the frog. The pressure of walking against the frog helps push blood up the leg. The old saying no hoof, no horse is an ancient truth. When the blood does not circulate, or a chemical imbalance due to stress occurs in the blood stream, a reaction develops in the tiny veins, or laminae, in the hoof and causes them to explode. This dreaded condition is called laminitis, or founder. It is excruciatingly painful and can be the precursor of a general body shutdown. Founder killed Barbaro and Secretariat, just as it kills countless fat ponies and beloved horses every day.

Nothing could have been done to save Eight Belles.

Her pedigree gives another clue to her fate. Her sire, Unbridled Song, won only five races before he was retired to stud at the age of four, due to foot problems. Her mother, Away, a brilliant sprinter, won seven times before retiring due to unsoundness. Eight Belles has Native Dancer in four of the 16 horses in the fourth level of her pedigree. That great horse was retired for recurring foot problems. Hail to Reason, a revered sire in the fifth level of her pedigree, broke his ankle but was saved and retired to stud.

Eight Belles had, like almost all horses bred in the U.S. and racing today, genes predisposed to foot problems. Every single horse that ran in the Kentucky Derby this year and that will run in the Preakness has Native Dancer and Hail to Reason in their bloodlines. Some have both. Many, like Eight Belles, have them over and over.

Could Eight Belles’ fate have been prevented? No one can ever know if more time to grow could have saved her. But as the facts become tragically more evident, breeders must use the information to save other brave and gallant Thoroughbreds.

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