The courage and loss of Eight Belles
Somewhere near the middle of the Aspen municipal golf course, the sound of thundering hooves could be heard, hammering a line down a hard-packed, dirt service road, sounding just as a runaway locomotive might. Cars filled every available space along the shoulders of Cemetery Lane, and the rest of the crowd walked out from town. A hurriedly erected courtesy fence outlined the rumbling course, but still it was difficult to hold the throng of enthusiasts back.We had a big stake in this, the first rerun of Aspens famous old-time horse races in at least 70 years. Caroline, my first wife, was jockeying her tall black horse, Aspen Admiral, a superbly fast local thoroughbred steed, who was raised by Buck Deane. Anyone who thought they had a fast horse was welcome to enter, and it was a mixed line-up of beautiful, agile horse flesh on that hot, spine-tingling Fourth of July in the early 70s.Horses are large, dynamic animals and its difficult for them to do much of anything without causing a commotion. From a distance, watching horses graze in a pasture can be a relaxing, bucolic experience, but if one moves in close, there is a realization that, at the shoulders, many horses stand taller than humans, and for some people, that is frightening.If you watched the Kentucky Derby, there are other factors that might surprise you. For instance, on May 3, 2008, the Derby itself was the 10th race in a Churchill Downs card containing 12 races. Thats a lot of horse racing in one day; the first race starting at 11 a.m. and the last at 7:42 p.m. Its not like people wear those goofy grins and sexy hats for one big race. Its a full day of celebration, tall tales, humor and dead-serious horse racing.Eight Belles, the filly thoroughbred who was sadly euthanized shortly after placing second as the only female in a field of otherwise all males, has unfortunately become a lightning rod for those who decry the state of thoroughbred horse racing today. Barbaro, another thoroughbred who also fell to the needle, stimulated our sensitivities to such tragedies, so Eight Belles seems easy pickings for those who disapprove of horse racing itself, or others who tout artificial surfaces as superior to dirt, and still others who think thoroughbred breeding places too much emphasis on speed and not enough on endurance.There are those who say it was folly (or irresponsible) to run a filly such as Eight Belles against the boys, somehow implying that she was inherently inferior. Such cowardly mental gymnastics only serve to marginalize the talent and ability of Eight Belles, a far worse disservice to the horse than running her in a race.In life, some of us have an infallible gyroscope that attempts to desecrate everything of beauty and danger by calling for prohibitions against this and that. As weve said before in this column, the silent eloquence of laying it out there for the world to see comes from the heart, and that will never change.No one should object to finding safer ways of doing things, including horse racing, but to denigrate the incredible performance of a majestic athlete in last Saturdays Kentucky Derby, in an attempt to garner support for horse racing reform, is clearly in sharp contrast to the courage, honesty and pure heart that Eight Belles exhibited. Her short life was worth far more than that.I dont remember how Aspen Admiral did in that July 4th race years ago, but it was either first or second. What I do remember is that he gained the respect of many who had never heard of him before.Tony Vagneur prefers hanging out in the stables rather than on the track. Read him here every Saturday and send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
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