Derby Breakdowns

May 6th 2008 09:53 pm |

The horrendous end to Eight Belles on Saturday represented an unimaginable and worst case scenario for the sport. A filly in the greatest race draws in a handful of fans. The breakdown and death of a filly could drive them away in droves. How many fans turned there back on the sport after Ruffian? The coverage of the race has made the breakdown a prominent component of the story — as well it should be — and, in most cases, Big Brown’s win has taken a backseat to the tragedy. The most extreme reactions are aligning horse racing with dog fighting. Counting Barbaro’s breakdown this is the fourth catastrophic breakdown in the last two years at racing’s “big days” (Pine Island and George Washington) — the amount of anger from the animal loving public is understandable as uninformed as it might be.

Breakdowns at the Derby do not happen. ESPN’s Randy Moss said that Eight Belles breakdown will go into the books as the greatest tragedy in the long history of the race. Pat Forde at ESPN.COM wrote, “The last time a Derby horse went down was 1974, when Flip Sal ‘went lame’ according to the race chart, and was pulled up. In 1970, Holy Land clipped heels with another horse on the second turn and fell. In 1932, Liberty Limited broke down, and Busy American did the same in 1922.” With the unsettling amount of attention being paid to the tragedy I thought it might be worthwhile to take a closer look at the four breakdowns mentioned by Forde. Needless to say, the publcity surrounding Eight Belles breakdown is without precedent. In examining the reporting of the other Derby breakdowns it is safe to say that Randy Moss’s assertion about the historical weight of this tragedy is exactly right.

1922 — Busy American

On May 11, the following was reported,

“The Kentucky Derby field will include ten horses if Busy American goes to post. The E.R. Bradley ace is in a bad way, suffering from a bowed tendon. Trainer Thompson said today that he did not know what Mr. Bradley would do when he saw the colt but in all probability he would not start.

“‘The colt could run in the Derby, but chances are that he would never run another race,’ remarked Trainer Thompson, as he pointed to the bow and touched it with his thumb and forefinger. The colt flinched perceptibly, showing that the spot was sore, but he did not seem to be so lame while he was walking around the shed. Mr. Bradley will determine when he arrives tomorrow whether the colt will start.”

The article concluded:

“Trainer Thomas (sic) said today that Busy American had shown him more than any colt he had ever trained and that he believed if he had not bowed a tendon he surely would have won the derby. He appears to be a colt which has been overtrained. He looks to be sour and has a disposition to bear out in the turns, which indicates he is sore.”

Busy American ran in the race and broke down, as reported on May 13,

“…the watching multitude broke into a roar of ‘They’re off!’ That great outcry was followed by another of even greater force when it was seen that Morvich [the eventual winner] had taken the the lead almost at once, with Busy American, chief of the Bradley candidates, lapped upon his flanks. As the field swept past the stands for the first time these two led in that order, with My Play and Startle next and the others closely bunched behind them.

“Swinging around the club house turn, Busy American bore out and immediately thereafter broke down. That bowed tendon, rapidly repaired, had played him false.”

The fate of Busy American or his jockey goes unmentioned. His owner, who apparently made the decision to run the injured horse, was the well known horse owner and breeder Colonel E. R. Bradley. Read more about Bradley here

1932 — Liberty Limited

There appears to have been two breakdowns in this race. E.R. Bradley, owner of Busy American, had the winner in 1932 with Burgoo King. Burgoo King’s entry mate Brother Joe “pulled up lame” during the race. Here are the two clips from the New York Times mentioning the injuries:

“The field, which comprised nine horses, was the fourth choice, getting strong backing in the strength of the presence of Brandon Mint and Liberty Limited, the latter making his first start as a 3-year-old after having been stopped in training by bad feet. He fell lame in the running.”

Later in the account of the running of the race:

“Brother Joe ran coupled with Burgoo King today, but broke down and brought up the rear with the crippled Liberty Limited.”

No mention is made of the condition of either Brother Joe or Liberty Limited or their riders.

1970 — Holy Land

According to an account of the 1970 Derby, “There was also a mishap in the final phase when Holy Land slipped his bridle and threw his rider, Hector Pilar.” The report of the race mentioned nothing of the horse going down. Pilar suffered fractured vertebra. In the report on the condition of jockey Pilar, it mentioned that the spill marked, “…the first time in 34 years that a Derby horse finished without a rider.” The 1936, Granville lost his rider soon after the start.

1974 — FLIP SAL

An account of the 1974 Derby had this in its final paragraph:

“But the saddest broken dream involved Flip Sal, a colt owned by Salvatore Tufano and Benjamin Cohen of Long Island and named for Tufano’s two sons. Flip Sal, winner of a division of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, fractured his left ankle after a half mile.

As Cannonade cantered slowly back to the winner’s enclosure, with Cordero waving his high whip high in the air in jubilation, a small white, tractor-drawn ambulance was taking Flip Sal away fat across the track on the backstretch. The chances of saving his life were considered slight.”

Flip Sal’s story continued. Nearly two weeks after the race, the following was reported:

“Flip Sal, a casualty of this year’s Kentucky Derby, has become the darling of the American public as he waits a decision on whether he lives or dies.

“Get well cards and letters flow daily to Churchill Downs for the colt who smashed his front left leg halfway around the track in the 100th Derby.

“‘Dear Flip Sal,’ and 8-year-old from Altoona, Pa., wrote. ‘I hope you feel better. I was sorry to hear about your leg. You are a beautiful horse…’

“The mail addressed to the colt, his veterinarian, Dr. Gary Lavin, or just to Churchill Downs. Some offer to pay his medical bills, others offer a home for the colt and many ask for his picture.”

And two days later, the following was reported:

“Flip Sal, a horse that was injured in the backstretch of the Kentucky Derby May 4, will not be destroyed, as had been feared after the injury.

“A veterinarian, Dr. Gary Lavin of Louisville, said today: ‘We’ve reached the point where the odds are in his favor. He will be retired to stud.’

“Lavin said there was no chance that Flip Sal would race again.”

Even with this very small sample, we can conclude that the general concern for race horses has evolved. In 1922, an obviously injured horse was sent to race and broke down. In 1974, Flip Sal brought an outpouring of concern very similar to what we saw with Barbaro. There is (and will be) an unbelievable amount of coverage for these kinds of track tragedies in the era of the internet. While the lunatic fringe seem to attract the most attention, it is the people who truly love the sport and the horses who will seek answers to the troubling questions raised in the wake of Eight Belles death.

While PETA might get the spotlight, here are a few voices of reason that are worth a second look:
Jane Smiley, So Young, So Strong, So Fast and Oh So Very Sad
Sally Jenkins, Is Horse Racing Breeding Itself to Death
Jim Squires, Horse Lover’s View From Inside the Industry

Burgoo King Wins Kentucky Derby as 50,000 Look On, New York Times, May 8, 1932
Busy American Unlikely to Start, New York Times, May 12, 1922
Canonnade Captures 100th Kentucky Derby Before 163,628 Fans, New York Times, May 5, 1970
Derby Spill to Keep Injured Pilar Idle for Seven Months, New York Times, May 5, 1970
Dust Commander Captures Derby, New York Times, May 3, 1970
Hearts Go Out To Injured Horse, New York Times, May 15, 1974
Injured Derby Horse Saved, New York Times, May 17, 1974
Morvich Wins Kentucky Derby by Two Lengths, New York Times, May 14, 1922

Filed in Kentucky Derby,thoroughbred racing history

4 Responses to “Derby Breakdowns”

  1. kentucky joe says:

    excellent post and thanks for the link to Jim Squires’ article as that is perhaps the most intelligent discourse I have read since Saturday

  2. Mary says:

    Reading Peter Chew’s 100 Years At the Kentucky Derby (for the millionth time) and a similar Belmont Park publication about the Belmont Stakes I recently acquired led me to this post. Very informative. The last place horse in the 1867 (first) broke down during the race, but was saved for stud and is responsible for Mollie McCarty and Yo Tambien. Much more research in store.

  3. Mary says:

    More information:
    Busy American had a stud career after his Derby breakdown. His first crop was born in 1924. He would have been 5 years old. His last crop appears to have been born in 1936, which leads me to believe he lived until he was 16 or 17 years old.

    Liberty Limited had a stud career after his Derby breakdown. His first crop was born in 1935. He would have been 6 years old. His last crop appears to have been born in 1946, which leads me to believe he lived until he was 16 or 17 years old.

    Brother Joe appears to have sired a few foals after his Derby breakdown. Progeny is listed for 1936-1940. He would have been 11 in 1940.

    Holy Land was sent to Peru when he was 15 (1982). USA progeny is listed for the years 1975 to 1979.

    Flip Sal died of a heart attack in 1985. He was 14 years old. He had a large number of offspring born 1976-1986.

    I’ll see what I can do on Preakness and Belmont Stakes breakdowns.

  4. Mary says:

    Belmont Stakes:
    Monday 1967: Broke down during inaugural running of The Belmont Stakes, but was saved for stud. In California, sired champion mare Mollie McCarty and Joe Hooker, sire of the great mare Yo Tambien. Foals listed from 1871 to 1885.

    Utopian 1933: 3rd in Preakness, appears to have broken down in Belmont. Progeny listed 1936-1948.

    Black Hills 1959: Euthanized on the track after the 1959 Belmont. Lake Erie fell over Black Hills during the race, but appears to have been OK – racing 7 years until he was 9. Progeny listed for Lake Erie from 1963-1976. Must have been bred during his racing career.