05/04/2008 11:00PM

Eight Belles's injury rare and baffling

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Breakdowns of the kind Eight Belles sustained moments after the Kentucky Derby are unusual in horses that are pulling up from a race, equine orthopedic surgeons said Monday. But the strides after the finish line can still present a danger for tired horses.

There are two primary contributing factors for post-race breakdowns, said Dr. Larry Bramlage, an orthopedic surgeon with Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital who was present at the Derby as a veterinary spokesman from the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

"One, they're tired, so their muscles absorb less of the stress, so they start taking a heavier load on the skeleton," said Bramlage. "The second thing is, they take their mind off what they're doing. That's why you want a jockey to let the horse gallop out over a longer distance and don't let them start propping to slow themselves down. The propping situation certainly wouldn't apply here, because the horse had galloped out already a quarter of a mile easing down in speed. As to whether she was tired or not, she'd just run a mile and a quarter - they're all tired.

"You'll see things like condylar fractures or sesamoid fractures in one leg, and as they start slowing down and their mind gets off of the competition, they'll become aware of the discomfort," Bramlage added when asked what injuries are most likely after the finish line. "An injury as they're pulling up is not terribly unheard of. The vast majority of injuries, however, don't manifest until they're cooling out, unless the horse becomes structurally unstable in some fashion. Then they start slowing down in the race. None of those scenarios fit here."

Bramlage said close examination of video shows Eight Belles's breakdown began when her right front leg failed.

"Two steps later, her left front gives way as well, and that's when she went down," he said. "She gets very asymmetric [uneven in stride] for about two steps, and then her left front fails."

That progression has led some to believe the filly's shifting weight from the right front to the left front likely contributed to the left leg's failure. She had condylar fractures, vertical breaks from the fetlock area up into the cannon bone, in both forelegs.

Dwayne H. Rodgerson, a surgeon at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, called Eight Belles's injury - near-simultaneous catastrophic condylar fractures in both forelegs - "very rare."

Rodgerson said he knows of no statistics showing how many injuries occur after the finish line. But studies have shown the catastrophic injury rate in Thoroughbred races typically hovers between 1.6 and 2.03 per 1,000 races.

Smaller condylar fractures occur fairly commonly in racehorses and frequently can be repaired. Rodgerson said that horses with more common incomplete condylar fractures often are weight bearing and can appear sound. But the rarer severe cases, particularly ones in which bone breaks completely and through the skin and allows contamination into the leg, as happened on Eight Belles's left foreleg, can call for euthanasia.

"Once the bone pops out, it goes up the leg, and once that goes the collateral ligament support is gone," Rodgerson said. "The collateral ligament is what keeps the leg from shifting to the inside or outside, and when they lose that collateral ligament, the joint's not stable, and it can, in a sense, dislocate."

In Eight Belles's instance, the involvement of both front legs left no real option for treatment, Bramlage and Rodgerson agreed, because there was essentially no way for the horse to stand, a key to survival. And the open wound on the left front would have made the risk of infection high, even if surgeons had attempted repair.

Eight Belles's injury, and particularly the failure of both front fetlocks, provides a highly unusual and baffling case study for the country's top equine orthopedic surgeons.

"I've never seen it in a horse that galloped out that far after the race," Bramlage said. "I actually have only ever seen it firsthand on videotape and never in a race where I actually have been. Even in that situation and in situations where a horse injures one leg, they're not performing like she was performing. She was closing the gap at the end of the race, so it's not as if she were protecting something or aware, even, that anything was going on. Her level of performance couldn't have been higher. So there was no outward sign that any of this was impending."

Jockey did everything right, Jones says

Larry Jones, the trainer of Eight Belles, spoke out Monday in defense of jockey Gabriel Saez, who rode Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby.

"This filly in every race has tried to drift toward the rail," Jones told The Associated Press in Lexington, Ky. "It's her comfort zone, and Gabriel knows this. This kid made every move the right move, and I hate it that they're wanting to jump down his throat. He did not try to abuse that horse to make her run faster. He knew he was second best, that she wasn't going to catch Big Brown."

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal rights group, has called for Saez to be suspended, suggesting that he should have known that the filly was injured.

Saez, 20, began to ride competitively in 2006 and was the youngest jockey in the Derby this year. He issued the following statement Monday from his home base at Delaware Park:

"I remain heartbroken over Eight Belles, and I want to let her many fans know that she never gave me the slightest indication before or during the race that there was anything bothering her. All I could sense under me was how eager she was to race. I was so proud of her performance, and of the opportunity to ride her in my first Kentucky Derby, all of which adds to my sadness. Riding right now at Delaware Park and being around the horses and other jockeys is good therapy for me, but I hope the media understands that I prefer not to conduct interviews at this time. Please respect my decision while I mourn my personal loss."