Owner and Trainer Reflect on Eight Belles Tragedy Print E-mail

PA Equestrian
June, 2008

Rick Porter honors Eight Belles
at the 2009 Kentucky Derby

eightbellesI’m not sure that Rick Porter ever changed the oil at his former string of auto dealerships, but then again, I wouldn’t bet against it.

He is a hands-on guy.

He spends a lot of chilly, early mornings on the backside of Delaware Park or at his sparkling new barn at the Fair Hill Training Center watching his thoroughbreds on their way from the barn to a workout.  More than anything else, he knows they love to run. In a story I wrote last year about the sensational season with his prized colt Hard Spun, Betsy Porter described her husband’s “all-in” philosophy.

“Horses are his passion,” explained Betsy.  “He is very organized.  His attention to detail is why he’s been so successful in the car business and now in racing.  Rick puts his heart and soul into his horses.”

If you saw the photo of Porter late in the twilight of 2008 Derby Day, the bridle of his fatally injured filly clutched in his hand, overwhelming emotional distress was clearly etched upon his face.

Porter’s brilliant filly Eight Belles ran her heart out finishing a splendid runner-up to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby.  As the filly galloped out past the finish line something went terribly wrong.  She collapsed near the backstretch after breaking both front ankles.

“I was stunned,” Porter said in an interview for Bloodhorse.com from his home near Wilmington.

“She was so sound and doing so well coming into the race.  I never thought about her getting injured.  It was the same with Hard Spun last year.  Look, I’m not naïve to think that it won’t happen.  I tried not to think about the possibility.

“I’m having a bad time.  I hope I can work my way through this.”

Porter said the daughter of Unbridled’s Song was cremated a few days after the race.

“Churchill Downs is thinking of something to memorialize her or we could also take her to Three Chimneys Farm where she was foaled and raised,” he said.  “There are other options as well.  We’ll give it some time and then make a decision.”

Named for Wyeth painting

Although Eight Belles hailed from a speedy female line, she handled two turn races capturing the Fantasy, Honeybee and Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn Park this year.  She kicked off the year cruising to a 15-length win in an allowance race at the Fairgounds.

Eight Belles is a daughter of multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Unbridled's Song, the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), Florida Derby (G1) and Wood Memorial (G1). Unbridled's Song now ranks as a successful stallion, with an Average Winning Distance of 7.2 furlongs for his progeny.

The filly was named after “Eight Bells,” the summer home in Port Clyde, Maine of the late artist N. C. Wyeth, the father of Andrew Wyeth and grandfather of Jamie Wyeth, both world-famous painters.  The red brick home is used by Andrew Wyeth as a painting site.

Eight Bells is also a famous Winslow Homer painting of 1886.  Homer often painted seascapes where there was  a struggle with nature.  The painting inspired N. C. Wyeth who also named one of his paintings Eight Bells.

“Betsy (Porter’s wife) and I have been friends with the Wyeths for years and I’ve named horses after their paintings because it’s just something I do,” Porter related.

“I was going to name a colt  ‘Eight Bells,’ but I’d been holding on to the name and then I fell in love with this filly as a yearling and decided to use the name for her.  I added an ‘e’ to Bells for a feminine touch.”

Trainer fires back

In the wake of the filly’s death, racing is dealing with yet another black eye.  The owner and the trainer spoke three days after Eight Belle’s death at a press conference at Delaware Park.  Jones vehementy denied the filly’s size (17 hands) was brought about by steroids.

“First, and foremost, I do not inject my horses with steroids,” said a visibly upset Jones.  “I told the doctors handling the necropsy to make sure they take tissue samples to prove we have nothing to hide.  The last time I used steroids on a horse was 1997.  The horse had been injured severely and we used maybe one-tenth of the amount I needed to take care of the horse.”

"I know Larry puts the horse first,” Porter said. “He’s not using anything that would be harmful to the health of the horse.  I get the vet bills from Larry, and it's rare that I see a vet bill of $100 a month on a horse. I've never gotten a bill for an injection in two years.”

Fighting back tears, the trainer recalled the last time he rode eight Belles a few days before the Derby as ESPN filmed a feature on the filly.  He also defended his jockey, Gabriel Saez.

“Eight Belles had a habit of turning her head in the last few races and lunging toward the rail,” Jones said.  “Gabe went to the left hand to keep her away from the rail.

“Gabe wasn’t out their for a quiet ride to church or something like that.  It’s a horse race and he has to keep running her.  It was not excessive use of the whip.  People are just exaggerating.”

The final necropsy report issued on May 15 confirmed compound fractures of both front legs at the fetlock joints. The results also described lacerated skin on both legs, an absence of joint fluid in the damaged areas and congested lungs.

"No pathology was found to indicate the occurrence of any other catastrophic event beside the fractured legs," wrote Kentucky chief veterinarian Lafe Nichols, who did the tests at the University of Kentucky's Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center.

Jones said the same day that he believes the horse just tripped over her own feet.

"She's bad about stumbling while pulling up," Jones said. "She's doesn't pick her feet up very high. It's one reason she could run very fast and far. She had the perfect motion for being effective and efficient. However, those horses who do that have a tendency to want to stumble."

For those who have jumped on his trainer, Porter wishes that critics could visit Larry Jones’ barn and see how the trainer and his assistant and wife Cindy coddle and prepare their thoroughbreds for the track.

“Larry and Cindy treat these horses like they are their kids,” Porter related.  “It’s their whole life.  They were very attached to Eight Belles, so they’re really suffering.”

Safety measures needed quickly

For Jones and his staff, there are sad days ahead.  The death of Eight Belles tolls more trouble for racing’s tattered image.  Eight Belles’ fatality came on the heels of the high-profile deaths of George Washington in the ’07 Breeders’ Cup, Barbaro, who was euthanized eight months after fracturing his leg in the ’06 Preakness, and Pine Island in the ’05 Breeders’ Cup.

The racing industry must tackle some thorny issues to make the sport safer.  Ban raceday medications; more thorough pre-race physical examinations; look into performing bone scans for major races; limited use of the whip during a race; scale back the racing of two-year olds; the fixation on of breeding for precocious speed and staging longer races (1¼ to 1½-mile) thus blunting the obsession of speed over durability and stamina.  And how about putting a full month between the Triple Crown races.

Finally, perform a sweeping review on all racing surfaces. Catastrophic injuries will never be totally eliminated, but synthetic tracks initially look very promising.  California tracks saw a 30 to 40 percent decline in fatalities on synthetic surfaces versus dirt according to a recent California Horse Racing Board report.

Jockeys are equally at peril.  There are 58 jockeys in this country on permanent disability.

Last year Mario Pino rode a thrilling race on Hard Spun on Derby Day, finishing runner-up for Eight Belles’ owner and trainer.

“When you have a horse break down it doesn’t makes us look good,” observed Pino, a native of West Grove, Pa.  “It saddens horse race fans and those that tune in once a year just to see the Derby.

“The synthetic surfaces have gotten high marks initially, so maybe it is the answer.  I know some horsemen and owners don’t like how their horses train and race over it, but in life you need to adapt.”

Pino draws the analogy to the racing helmets and vests that years ago didn’t exist.

“It’s been a huge difference when you hit the ground and get stepped on,” said Pino, 46.  “If I didn’t have the vest on I would have been seriously hurt from the horse’s shoe that struck me.  Safety for the horse and jockey should be first and foremost.”

Racing is approaching a crisis state.  Currently a Jockey Club committee is looking into ways to improve the health and safety of thoroughbreds.  Here is the best solution: horseracing needs a racing commissioner just like the other major U. S. sports.  Problem is each state controls and regulates the sport in its state.

Figure it out.  It’s past time to implement significant changes in favor of the horses.


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