05/04/2008 11:00PM

Coping with sudden death

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Eight Belles ran well to finish second behind Big Brown, but after galloping out, she broke down and was euthanized.P

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Three men sharing a common name and a piece of sad history could be found outside Barn 43 at Churchill Downs late Saturday afternoon, trying to come to terms with the death of the filly Eight Belles, who finished second in the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby before shattering both front legs while pulling up on the clubhouse turn.

Trainer Larry Jones, looking strangely vulnerable without his trademark cowboy hat, embraced family and friends in the hushed gloaming of the shed row and then shut himself into the empty stall where Eight Belles had lived to pray with the racetrack chaplain.

Dr. Larry Bramlage, the pioneer orthopedic equine surgeon and veterinary spokesman for the Derby, offered Jones what he could in terms of consolation, trying his best to explain how the fatal injuries sustained by Eight Belles were almost unprecedented in his experience.

And there was United Security guard Larry Werner, who stood by a white sawhorse barrier wearing an Eight Belles cap and described how he was manning his race-time post at the backstretch gap when the filly went down, practically in front of him, and how he was pressed into grim service as her fate became clear.

"I saw it happen, and I couldn't believe it," Werner said. "I'd been with these fillies in this barn all week long, and they made me feel like family. When that fellow, the outrider, hollered for me to come over and help hold the gray screen to keep people from seeing her, I went right to her. I didn't care if I got in trouble or not."

It will take Werner and everyone else who bore witness quite a while to get over the sight of Eight Belles down on both knees and rump in the air, in a pose of desperate supplication, wondering why her front legs had suddenly failed. Bramlage suggested that the multiple fractures may have been a function of exhaustion in the wake of a supreme physical effort.

"It's why you see a jockey let a horse gallop out at its own pace, rather than pulling it to a stop," Bramlage said. "In this case, though, she'd galloped out quite a ways before the breakdown occurred."

After the umpteenth viewing of the Derby replay, it was hard not to notice that Eight Belles flinched her head upwards at least twice during the final stages of the race. Whether she was reacting to the proximity of the rail, or to subtle changes in the way she was hitting the ground, it is impossible to tell. At that point, still in hot pursuit of Big Brown, the adrenaline of both horse and rider was running high.

To his credit, Jones later submitted with considerable grace to a lengthy press conference. If nothing else, the grief-stricken trainer provided an alternative image to the hardcore clips of Eight Belles flailing on the ground.

But was it enough that Jones insisted the death of his filly had nothing to do with the track, or the fact that she was running beyond 1o1/16 miles for the first time, or that she was a female facing rough-and-tumble males? Such a raft of hard questions carries its own uncomfortable weight.

Rick Porter, the owner of Eight Belles, made the call to run in the Derby instead of the Kentucky Oaks, which Jones won anyway with the Brereton Jones filly Proud Spell. As he stood outside the Jones barn, Porter clutched the white halter worn by his filly just hours earlier, when Jones himself led her to the paddock.

"You can experience such incredible highs, and such terrible lows," Porter said, his voice barely above a whisper. "I'm sure I'll be second-guessing myself for a long time."

Parents and pets, lovers and friends. Life is filled with loss. In the end, the survivors are measured in large part by how they function with the pain. On Saturday, horse racing was hardly alone.

For those trying to get to Churchill Downs early, driving northbound on Interstate 65, the traffic stopped cold a little after 9 a.m. when a Dodge Durango driven by James C. Henson III crossed the grassy median and crashed head-on into the Jeep SUV driven by Jesse Keeling. She was 23, Henson was 60. Both were killed.

For those who made it to the track and bothered to notice, the American flags were displayed at half staff on Saturday in memory of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Bryan E. Bolander, 26, who was stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky. Bolander died in Iraq four days before the Derby from wounds suffered when his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device.

Eight Belles was named for a home in Maine that belongs to the Wyeth family, friends of the Porters and best known for artists Andrew and his son, Jamie.

In naval parlance, though, bells are sounded on shipboard, two each hour until eight are tolled at the end of a four-hour watch. If the watch has passed without incident, the sailor going off duty will mark the moment by telling his relief, "Eight bells and all's well."

Larry Werner, coming to the end of his watch at Barn 43 on Saturday night, doffed his souvenir cap and pointed to autographs from Larry and Cindy Jones, Gabriel Saez, and the rest of the Eight Belles team. Stitched on the side was the slogan, "Beauty in Motion."

"She would always come right up to the front of the stall and let you talk to her, real friendly like," Werner said. "I just can't believe she's gone. Nobody can."