LEXINGTON, Ky. - The trainer of euthanized filly Eight Belles adamantly defended the way jockey Gabriel Saez handled the Kentucky Derby runner-up.
In an interview with the Associated Press yesterday, Larry Jones said Saez applied the whip only to prevent Eight Belles from crashing into the rail.
"This filly in every race has tried to drift toward the rail," Jones said. "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."
Jones spoke while traveling from Churchill Downs to Delaware with his other prized filly, Kentucky Oaks winner Proud Spell. Jones is scheduled to have a news conference this morning at Delaware Park.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for Saez to be suspended, contending he should have noticed an injury and pulled the horse up rather than applied the whip. The organization also announced plans to protest to the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority today, arguing for major changes, including a ban on using the whip or racing horses younger than 3.
Calls to the racing authority were not immediately returned.
The Humane Society of the United States also weighed in, arguing that horses are becoming more fragile because they're being bred for speed, not durability.
"There are problems coming to light more than ever - problems related to breeding," said Wayne Pacelle, Humane Society president. "Breeding too many horses, and waiting for someone else to clean up the problem. And breeding them for body characteristics that make these animals vulnerable to breakdowns, especially those spindly legs on top of these stout torsos."
Dr. Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian at Churchill Downs during the Derby, was in surgery yesterday and not immediately available to respond.
Eight Belles broke both front ankles while galloping out a quarter-mile past the finish line and was euthanized on the track.
Jones said he has watched the race from various angles and found that not only did Saez do nothing wrong, but everything right.
"We're putting him on multimillion-dollar horses, and I think this kid represented our business as professionally as could be run," he said. "If I were to run in the Derby tomorrow, I'd put him right back on my horse."
Jones acknowledged changes could be made to make the sport safer, although he doubts any would have saved his filly from what he called a freak injury.
Stewards could, for example, mandate lighter whips or riding crops, Jones said. However, he said his training program takes great care to make sure no horse is abused, even in a rush for the finish.
"My horses don't come back from races with welts on their body," Jones said. "Very seldom do we find a mark on these horses. I don't think we need to make [the whips] out of foam rubber, but you could get to a happy medium where you know it's not going to hurt them and the horse would still know what you want them to do."
Jones said some of his horses don't respond to the whip at all. In fact, this year Jones petitioned officials at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas to let him send out a jockey without one. Jones' petition was accepted despite initial concern the jockey wouldn't be able to control the horse.
As for the prospect of changing dirt tracks to synthetic ones, Jones said he supports continued research on how that will improve safety. He insisted, however, the track at Churchill Downs was not to blame for the loss of Eight Belles.
"Churchill's track was as close to perfect on Saturday as it could be," he said. "The moisture in it was wonderful."
Emotions were still running high at Churchill Downs yesterday, where museum officials were considering putting up a card for visitors to sign. A vase of flowers had been left at the track's museum, with a card that read, "Eight Belles, you were courageous and beautiful and we will miss you, but never forget you."