By Susan Hayden Kennedy
Despite the untimely death of Eight Belles following her historic second-place finish in the 134th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), trainer Larry Jones believed “Eight Belles did not die in vain. I don’t know why, but the good Lord has a plan for all things.”
More than a year later, a young lady named Maria Rose Michalak understood, at least in part, why Eight Belles died. “With every improvement racing makes in her honor and with every horse rescued in her name, Eight Belles crosses the wire in the lead, winning yet again.”
Despite being only 16, Michalak has just written and published her first book, Eight Belles: Triumph Beyond the Wire.
The idea for the book was born with Eight Belles’ inspiring run in the Derby. “She was a sweet filly who ran an amazing race, and I thought she deserved to have her story told. I also thought she and her human family deserved to have their story told with love,” Michalak explained.
Ten months after Michalak’s father suggested she write the book, she handed the first copy of the biography to Larry and Cindy Jones at Churchill Downs the morning of the 135th Kentucky Derby.
While Michalak’s book chronicles Eight Belles’ days as a foal, as well as her lineage, training, and racing career, it also recounts the positive changes that have occurred in Thoroughbred racing as a result of Eight Belles’ death.
Several adoption stories are chronicled, including the story of MidAtlantic Horse Rescue, which has purchased several former racehorses and prepared them for new lives with sales proceeds from the red wristbands embossed with Eight Belles’ name.
Others are Wheels of Stars, who has been adopted by a Maryland woman; Dr. Hector, taken in by a 13-year-old girl in Ohio; and Fast Movin Fini, adopted by an outrider at Belmont Park and retrained as a trail horse. All of them rescued, Michalak said, in Eight Belles’ name.
One adopted horse now lives in Michalak’s backyard. Jones, renamed in honor of Larry and Cindy, is a former lead pony at Delaware Park. The 12-year-old gelding retired with a shoulder injury, and his owner sought a nice retirement for him. Cindy Jones immediately thought of Maria.
“She knew he’d be happy here,” Michalak said. “I was teaching riding and she thought he’d be good on light duty with the kids. Or, he’d be a good horse for me, since I love trail riding and light trail riding is just what Jones needed.”
Michalak, home-schooled in the foothills of North Carolina, has had her own horse since she was 4. “I liked horses and racing, but (2007 Derby contender) Hard Spun was my first love in the racing world. I started out calling Larry (Jones) ‘the smiling man with the cowboy hat.’ He seemed to have a lot of faith; he seemed to really care about horses and people.”
Then Maria fell in love with Eight Belles. “The first time I saw her was on Oaks day. Cindy was feeding her treats. Eight Belles looked so sweet, calm, and content. The next time I saw her I laughed out loud. It was her (pre-Derby) workout with Larry riding her, which is still one of my favorite things to watch. She looked like she was having so much fun on the track.
“Eight Belles showed courage, heart, and how much one life can touch others. She brought change to the Sport of Kings; she made a difference. There’s a lot of love in Eight Belles’ biography. I want her to be remembered, and I would love for others to be able to enjoy her story like I did.”