by Terry Conway
Three days after his brilliant filly Eight Belles broke down in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), Rick Porter was still searching for answers.
“No surprises,” Porter said of the preliminary results of the necropsy on Eight Belles. “No heart attack. No aneurysm. We may never know exactly what happened. It was just a tragic breakdown.”
The filly was galloping out after her runner-up performance to Big Brown when something went terribly wrong. She collapsed approaching the backstretch after breaking both front ankles.
Porter, who races as Fox Hill Farms, also said the filly’s trainer, Larry Jones, wanted her tested for steroids, because of radio news reports that accused Jones of using steroids because she was such a big filly.
“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.”
A full report from the necropsy that was performed at the University of Kentucky’s Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center is expected to take at least two weeks.
In an interview from his home near Wilmington, Del., Porter said the daughter of Unbridled's Song was cremated.
“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,” Porter said. “There are other options as well. We’ll give it some time and then make a decision.”
Porter said he studied Eight Belles' speed figures and talked extensively with Jones before entering her in the Derby. Jones spoke with Hall of Fame trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Leroy Jolley, who won the Derby with fillies, and both agreed that Eight Belles seemed to have the strength and ability to compete in the Derby.
“Larry told me the filly was training at her absolute best,” Porter said. “Everything fell into place. We got a bad draw in the Oaks and a good one in the Derby. I knew she could get a mile-and-a-quarter without any trouble. She ran to her form. was told she ran a 102 (Beyer Speed Figure).”
After Eight Belles crossed the finish line, Porter was so busy celebrating her thrilling performance he wasn’t watching the filly gallop out. “I grabbed the binoculars and started looking at the horses coming back,” he recalled. “I didn’t see any red-and-white colors. My son, Scott, took the binoculars, then told me she was down. You go from the top of the world to the lowest of lows.”
By the time the Porter group made it down to the track, veterinarians had euthanized the filly. They walked over to the barn, where the chaplain came over and said a few prayers.
“I was stunned,” Porter said. “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. It’s really tough for me. I’m having a bad time.
“I don’t feel like going to the races now. Do I want to keep doing this? I am really down. I have a strong passion for horse racing. I hope I can work my way through this.”
Up until the Derby, Eight Belles was as sound as any racehorse could be. Growing to be 17-plus hands, the filly took awhile to develop.
“She was like a big kid as a 2-year old,” Porter recalled. “She had no idea where her legs were going. Then the light bulb went on as a 3-year old, and the filly figured it out. She really matured and kept getting better and better.”
Though Eight Belles hailed from a speedy female line, she handled two -turn races, capturing the Fantasy (gr. II), Honeybee (gr. III), and Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn Park this year. She kicked off the year by cruising to a 15-length win in an allowance race at Fair Grounds.
Eight Belles is a daughter of multiple grade I-winning millionaire Unbridled’s Song, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), Florida Derby (gr. I), and Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I).
The filly was named after “Eight Bells,” the summer home in Port Clyde, Maine, of the late artist N.C. Wyeth, 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 said. “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.”
In the wake of the filly’s death, there has been a firestorm of recriminations. Porter said he would like critics to visit Larry Jones’ barn and see how the trainer and his assistant and wife, Cindy, coddle and prepare their Thoroughbreds for the track.
“He and Cindy treat these horses like they are their kids,” Porter said. “It’s their whole life. They were very attached to Eight Belles, so they’re really suffering. Larry may have grown up on a cattle farm and seen a lot of stuff at rodeos, but this has really shaken him. He’s having an awful tough time with this.”
For Jones and his staff, there are sad days ahead. The death of Eight Belles tolls more trouble and dark days ahead for racing. For a number of years, Porter has campaigned for a racing commissioner to oversee the sport.
“It’s the one thing our sport doesn’t have that we definitely need,” he said. “There is a lack of accountability. Should we all be racing on one type of surface? I don’t know. But how is that going to happen with so many different track owners? We’re the only sport without a commissioner. It should have happened a long time ago.
“Maybe the only way is through (the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association). Look, the sport needs bettors and owners. The owners need to stay together and make it happen. Without them the show doesn’t go on.”
Porter also would like to see better technologies that screen horses more closely before they go into competition. “I’ve seen scans that don’t show microfractures and have been told that microfractures are part of the (growing) process,” he said. “What I would want to know is how good are the test results? If I can get good, solid information, I would be all for any technology that can better protect the horses.
“We put the horse’s welfare absolutely first. We don’t drop our horses down to the claiming ranks because there is a possibility of things not working out for the horse. We would rather give them away. Give them new homes and lives."
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals pressed its claims of animal cruelty in Eight Belles’ death with a demonstration May 6 at the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority office. PETA is seeking broad reforms to prevent future breakdowns.
“Everyone can demonstrate and voice their opinion, that’s why we live in a free society,” Porter said. “I haven’t agreed with what I’ve heard. Was there animal cruelty with Eight Belles? We’re 100% not guilty. PETA does what they think is right. We do what we think is right.”
Did Porter make the right decision racing Eight Belles in the Derby?
“Yes, she validated that she could run with the boys,” Porter said. “She was a clear second by a nice margin, then we had the tragedy of tragedies. We all wish we could go back and redo things. But you don’t get those second chances in life.”