May 5, 2008 -- The trainer of euthanized filly Eight Belles said Monday his jockey handled the horse properly during her second-place finish at the Kentucky Derby.
Trainer Larry Jones said from Lexington that if the Derby were run again tomorrow, he'd put jockey Gabriel Saez right back on one of his horses.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has called for the suspension of Saez, saying the horse must have been injured during the race and he should have pulled her up rather than finish.
But Jones said Saez acted exactly as he should have. Saez started whipping the horse to prevent her from running into the rail, Jones said.
Saez was riding Eight Belles when she broke both front ankles while galloping out a quarter of a mile past the wire. She was euthanized on the track.
PETA faxed a letter Sunday to the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority claiming the filly was "doubtlessly injured before the finish" and asked that Saez be suspended while Eight Belles' death is investigated.
Filly Eight Belles broke both front ankles after the wire in the Kentucky Derby. She was euthanized on the track while Big Brown's victory was celebrated.
"What we really want to know, did he feel anything along the way?" PETA spokeswoman Kathy Guillermo said. "If he didn't then we can probably blame the fact that they're allowed to whip the horses mercilessly."
Jones said Sunday the filly was clearly happy when she crossed the finish line.
"I don't know how in the heck they can even come close to saying that," Jones told The Associated Press. "She has her ears up, clearly galloping out."
Guillermo said if Saez is found at fault, the group wants the second-place prize of $400,000 won by Eight Belles to be revoked.
Saez, a 20-year-old Panama native, was riding in his first Kentucky Derby. He frequently rides for Jones.
A call to the jockeys' room at Delaware Park, where Saez raced on Sunday, went unanswered.
Eight Belles, the first filly since 1999 to run in the Derby, appeared fine until collapsing while galloping out after the finish.
The letter to Kentucky's racing authority also sought a ban on whipping, limits on races and the age of racehorses, and a move to softer, artificial surfaces for all courses.
But to horse people like Rick Dutrow Jr., who trains Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown, it wasn't all that simple.
"To make it safer, don't race the horses, don't train them, then they'll live good lives out on the farm," Dutrow Jr. said.
"But you have to train them for races, you have to run them and that's where the problems start to set in. They have to be asked to run and sometimes in a particular minute, they're asked to run when they're not ready to give it and then it hurts."
While Big Brown's bid to become the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years will certainly gain momentum in the next couple of weeks, Eight Belles and the sight of fans crying in the stands at Churchill Downs remained a focal point Sunday.
Churchill Downs officials were unsure whether there had been a fatality in the Kentucky Derby. Superintendent Butch Lehr said there hadn't been one in his 41 years at the track.
The death of Eight Belles may have been rare because it occurred well after the finish line, but it's just the latest trauma to happen at a major race on national television.
Two years ago, Derby winner Barbaro shattered his right rear leg at the start of the Preakness, with more than 100,000 people gasping at the site of the undefeated colt in distress as he was led into an equine ambulance. Barbaro was euthanized eight months later after developing laminitis as a result of the injuries.
"It's difficult to accept, and we don't have all the answers," Scott Palmer, a veterinarian who helped attend to Barbaro on the track at Pimlico, said Sunday. "It's shocking to see something like that."
Barbaro's demise helped push forward the installation of synthetic surfaces to replace traditional dirt tracks at several tracks, including Keeneland, Santa Anita, Arlington Park, Hollywood Park, Golden Gate Fields, Del Mar, Turfway and Presque Isle. A new on-track injury reporting program seems to indicate the surface is having the desired effect.
Reports by veterinarians at 34 tracks across the country between June 2007 and early this year showed synthetic tracks averaged 1.47 fatalities per 1,000 starts, compared with 2.03 fatalities per 1,000 starts for horses that ran on dirt.
But not everyone is convinced.
"This is a very big issue and needs to be discussed," two-time Derby winning trainer Nick Zito said. "You're changing the whole game. Big Brown ran on dirt [Saturday], he's going for history. You can't tell me the Polytrack is history. It's not yet, there isn't enough data yet."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.