The storyline of Kentucky Derby 134 still very much is about the filly Eight Belles, euthanized about a half mile from the Churchill Downs finish line where she fatally injured herself while galloping out after the race.
Resultantly, the telecast’s host, Bob Costas, will use a roundtable format--similar to the one which gained him and the HBO cable network critical acclaim for his series on sports and the media--to open NBC‘s Preakness Stakes coverage.
Costas will begin the telecast with a 30-minute taped piece featuring a round table discussion among Churchill Downs’ attending veterinarian, Dr. Larry Bramlage, the filly’s trainer, Larry Jones, racing analyst and Hall of Famer jockey Gary Stevens, and New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden.
When describing horse racing, Rhoden used the words cruel and unusual in the same sentence.
As I listened to the discussion, I found myself thinking, “what would I say if I were sitting at the table with Rhoden?” I felt uncomfortable, even while safely ensconced in my Saratoga Springs living room.
The topic itself, the line of questioning and Rhoden’s comments clearly placed Beyer on the defensive as he tried to explain what’s good about the industry, after having earned much of his journalistic chops as one of the sport’s most outspoken and respected critics.
Every retort or explanation Beyer gave was something I hoped that I might have thought of had I been the one on the hot seat. There was no weakness or hesitation in his answers, only clarity, as the Washington Post columnist tried to explain some of the sport’s many nuances that would unknown anyone not closely tethered to the game.
But here’s the bad news: With each correct answer, my gut was telling me that these explanations only fueled Rhoden’s criticisms and proved his point. Indeed, there were several times during the discussion when Rhoden explained that Beyer’s justifications were exactly the point: That horse racing can be unusually cruel.
That’s when I knew what I had suspected moments after learning of Eight Belles’ demise was true: That the story of Derby 134 wasn’t the tour de force victory of Big Brown but the death of a filly, and that it wasn’t a topic that anyone could move on fom anytime soon.
Accepting bad news and moving on is not only the mantra of modern sports but of contemporary life in the main. But that won’t be the case this weekend and interested parties will be working their DVRs overtime.
The topics to be covered--however briefly, given time constraints and the notion that the audience will have tuned expecting to see a particular horse race having its 133rd renewal--are breeding, training, permissive medication and the safety of track surfaces, according to NBC Sports producer Sam Flood.
As producer of the Derby telecast, Flood was criticized in some segments of the media for not covering the Eight Belles tragedy more in depth, mainly for not showing the grizzly pictures of a frightened animal attempting in vain to stand on two broken ankles. It was an injury that Bramlage said he never has seen, one I never even suspected was possible.
Of course, Flood made the right decision. No one, especially casual fans that watch one horse race a year, or children, need have that picture seared into their memory banks forever. “It’s not an image that should be seen during family viewing hours,” said Flood.
I had the best seat in the Belmont Park press box the afternoon Go for Wand broke her leg directly in front of the stands. It was a sight I never want to see again. I needed four shots of scotch to ease the pain before I could return to the word processor and opine about what I just saw for the morning editions of Newsday. In the press box lunch room, grown men cried openly.
Horses, whether racing at 40 mph on the racetrack or romping around the farm paddock with equine friends, will accidentally break down and some will die. That cannot be prevented.
But we can and should continue to talk about it, try to learn from it, and figure out ways not to be part of the problem. Only then would it be permissible to talk about moving on.