Agony, ecstasy at Churchill Downs

  • By John Scheinman Special to The Washington Post
  • Saturday, May 3, 2008 11:02pm
  • SportsSports

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In a single moment Saturday afternoon, all the joy and agony of horse racing was revealed in stark relief.

Trainer Richard Dutrow, who predicted with audacity all week his colt Big Brown would win the 134th Kentucky Derby, celebrated red-faced with joy in the arms of friends after the horse delivered an electrifying performance to win America’s greatest race by 43/4 lengths.

Around the Churchill Downs clubhouse turn, as the 20 horses in the field pulled up from the strain of their gallops, the filly Eight Belles, who rallied to finish second, crumpled to the ground, both her front ankles irreparably shattered.

As Dutrow and the owners of Big Brown made their way along the homestretch to the infield winner’s circle for the trophy presentation, equine ambulances surrounded the stricken filly near the backstretch gap, where she was euthanized by lethal injection.

Big Brown, the first horse since 1915 to win the Derby off just three lifetime starts, announced himself as a precocious and brilliant new star, but the sport of horse racing again likely will face sharp questions about its safety and the treatment of its equine competitors in the wake of an on-track death in its most important event.

A grim Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian at the race, said the breakdown appeared almost inexplicable.

“It will happen sometimes after the race. It’s not unheard of,” said Bramlage, who also was the on-call vet during the 2006 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, when Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke down at the start. “They’re taking a load on their skeleton. The difficult thing to explain with her is it was so far after the wire. She was easing down on the turn.”

The breakdown also is likely to renew the debate over the safety of dirt courses, which Churchill Downs has, as many tracks around the country have switched to artificial surfaces. Another horse, Chelokee, broke down at Churchill Downs on Friday.

“I don’t think you can blame the injury on the racetrack or say that Polytrack could have prevented it,” Bramlage said. “This could have happened on dirt or an artificial surface.”

For Dutrow, the victory by Big Brown confirmed everything he and jockey Kent Desormeaux believed about their horse.

Dutrow, a top New York-based trainer with a checkered history of personal drug use and drug violations in his horses, had insisted no horse in the field had shown the ability to beat Big Brown. He had appeared startlingly boastful of the first horse he would ever run in the Kentucky Derby.

Desormeaux, who had won the Derby twice with Silver Charm and Real Quiet, said simply that Big Brown was the best horse he had ever climbed on.

When the gate opened, Big Brown settled into an easy stride from his outside post as long shot Bob Black Jack gunned for the lead followed on the outside by Cowboy Cal. On the backstretch, Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Cool Coal Man attempted to press the pace from the inside as Big Brown relaxed in sixth place for Desormeaux.

On the far turn, Cowboy Cal went by the tiring leader as 50-1 shot Recapturetheglory made a bold bid on the outside. At that point, Desormeaux asked Big Brown to follow Recapturetheglory and they moved quickly up to and by the leaders. Desormeaux briefly looked over his left shoulder, ducked to the inside and took off, leaving the field in his wake.

At the finish line, the jockey blew kisses to the crowd of 157,770. The winner ran the 11/4 -mile race in 2 minutes 1.82 seconds and paid $6.80 to win as the 2-1 favorite.

“I got no distractions, no alterations in course, just slide over,” Desormeaux said of his smooth journey. “He added power to his stride when I needed it. Going down the backside, I didn’t know if I had any horse. He was just galloping, ears flopping.”

Asked if he believed Big Brown could win the Triple Crown, Desormeaux said, “You saw it. I don’t have to make any observation at this point. I’ll let him show it on the racetrack.”

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