The excitement over Big Brown's victory in the 134th Kentucky Derby quickly turned to shock Saturday when the near-record crowd of 157,770 at Churchill Downs realized the second-place horse, Eight Belles, had collapsed on the track.
"We were through racing," said Eight Belles' trainer Larry Jones. "All we had to do was gallop and stop and come home."
But a quarter-mile beyond the finish line, Eight Belles broke down with two broken ankles.
"She just collapsed right in front of the outrider," said Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian at Churchill Downs. "There there was really not any warning and she had gone all the way around the turn galloping out."
Trainers rushed to the horse's aid and an ambulance sped onto the track, but Bramlage said there was nothing they could do to save the filly.
"She didn't have a front leg to stand on to be splinted and hauled off in the ambulance so she was immediately euthanized," he said.
It was two years ago that Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro injured his leg in the Preakness. After a long and valiant recovery attempt, Barbaro was euthanized.
In 1975 Ruffian suffered an accident and had to be put down.
Fatal injuries demonstrate the fragility behind the power and speed of thoroughbreds.
Eight Belles' death comes at a time of heightened debate over whether all dirt tracks should be replaced with tracks made from synthetic material.
"It's not the track that did it on her today," trainer Jones said. "I never have an issue with Churchill Downs and water on their track. I'm not saying every track should go back to dirt, but I'm not saying every track should go to the synthetic."
Before she collapsed, Eight Belles had run what Jones called the "race of her life."
She finished second to the morning-line favorite Big Brown. The winning jockey expressed his sympathy.
"Eight Belles showed you her life for our enjoyment today," jockey Kent Desormeaux said. "I'm deeply sympathetic toward that team. I'm very sorry for their loss."