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 on Monday, 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 Tuesday morning near the paddock 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.
In a statement Monday, Saez said Eight Belles never indicated anything was wrong.
"All I could sense under me was how eager she was to race," Saez said. "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."
PETA also announced plans to protest the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority on Tuesday, arguing for major changes, including a ban on using the whip or racing horses younger than 3.
KHRA executive director Lisa Underwood said Monday that racing stewards found no evidence of wrongdoing by Saez. The authority also released a statement responding to PETA's proposals, arguing that many of them were premature or unnecessary.
The Humane Society of the United States also weighed in Monday, 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, acknowledged there was merit to that argument. He suggested there should be more financial incentives for horses who display longevity, rather than just the ability to come up big in one huge race.
"The value of a horse is no longer related to how much he can win on the racetrack," Bramlage said. "It's related to how likely he can get you to one of those events. The breed creeps toward a faster and faster individual, but that individual may be brilliant because they have a lighter skeleton. We're inadvertently selecting for the wrong thing."
Eight Belles broke both front ankles while galloping out a quarter-mile past the finish line and was euthanized on the track. Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said there will be an autopsy to determine cause of death.
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 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.
Waldrop said one of PETA's suggestions, that whips should be banned, would cause horses to be out of control on the track, producing far more injuries.
"Forcing a jockey to give up a whip would be like forcing a NASCAR driver to give up his steering wheel," Waldrop said.
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."
Jones said he hadn't yet decided where Proud Spell would run next but acknowledged the loss of Eight Belles has taken a toll on his team.
"I'm sure the way this affects us mentally, we'll probably bounce too far to the conservative line for a little while, being probably too safe on our horses," he said. "We're having a hard time getting this in perspective and behind us. These horses are very dear to us. I never got to say goodbye to her."
Emotions were still running high at Churchill Downs on Monday, where the Kentucky Derby Museum was considering putting up a card for visitors to sign, museum spokeswoman Wendy Treinen said. A vase of flowers had been left at the museum, with a card that read, "Eight Belles, you were courageous and beautiful and we will miss you, but never forget you."