Monday, May 5, 2008

The Untold Story of Eight Belles

While most of the world is concentrating on the horse race between Steve Ballmer and Jerry Yang, others are talking about the outcome of a different horse race - the race that ended with Eight Belles being euthanized. See my previous post.

Michael Hanscom notes that before the race, Eight Belles entered another horse race - the one between Clinton and Obama. Quoting from the Slog:

Earlier this week Hillary Clinton instructed supporters to bet on the filly in the Kentucky Derby. In other words: Bet on Eight Belles, the only female in the horse race (and, Clinton obviously hoped, a potentially promising metaphor/omen for herself and her chances of winning the Democratic nomination).

Hanscom notes:

[W]hile it shouldn’t need to be clarified, just to cover my bases with the terminally dense: no, the injury and death of the horse is not funny. The “seemed like a good idea at the time” and subsequently horrifically botched political analogy is hilarious.

But at least Hanscom and his sources were talking about Eigh Belles' death. Ruth Hochberger, writing in the Huffington Post, points out that NBC wasn't covering it.

In the several minutes after the race, viewers saw brief, faraway shots of horse ambulances and various other vehicles and a miscued interview with the veterinarian on call, who was busy on his walkie-talkie. When they finally got back to the veterinarian, he announced tersely that the horse had broken both front ankles and had had to be "euthanized."...

The news here (and Bob Costas used to fancy himself a journalist) was the dead filly. How did this happen? Could the jockey have done anything? Were there any signs in the horse's prior medical history that could have foretold this? How often does something like this happen? How did they euthanize the horse? Is this a no-brainer decision, or is there some specialist somewhere that would have made a stab at saving this horse?

I -- and I'm sure millions of others watching -- was curious. I wanted answers. And I got none.

The purpose of broadcast journalism -- like all journalism -- is to inform. And NBC, its announcers and producers failed miserably.

My question - when did Bob Costas fancy himself a journalist? Here's what Howard Cosell said in his 1985 book I Never Played the Game, in his chapter on his Sportsbeat show:

What passes for sports journalism on television, both on the local and national levels, too often comprises a cursory sideline interview with an athlete, or a critical comment here and there about a manager's pitching change or some such nonsense, or reading from a piece of wire copy about a trade or another drug arrest, or even a montage of action shots to the strains of Sinatra singing "Here's to the Winners."

And about Costas? Well, Cosell dealt with him in his 1991 book What's Wrong With Sports. In the second chapter, Cosell started by quoting from Franz Lidz:

At least Cosell said something. The current network guys - Bob Costas, Al Michaels, and Brent Musberger - never say anything. What's worse, they don't stand for anything.

Lidz then quoted Costas himself:

I'd like to be perceived as an entertaining sportscaster. I don't have the heart to nail people.

Well, Costas may play nice, but Eye of Polyphemus linked to a article that noted that PETA takes a slightly different view than Costas:

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is seeking the suspension of Eight Belles' jockey after the filly had to be euthanized following her second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Gabriel Saez was riding Eight Belles when she broke both front ankles while galloping out a quarter of a mile past the wire. She was euthanized on the track.

PETA faxed a letter Sunday to Kentucky's racing authority claiming the filly was "doubtlessly injured before the finish" and asked that Saez be suspended while Eight Belles' death is investigated.

"What we really want to know, did he feel anything along the way?" PETA spokeswoman Kathy Guillermo said. "If he didn't then we can probably blame the fact that they're allowed to whip the horses mercilessly."

Eight Belles' crew disputed PETA's allegations.

Eight Belles trainer Larry Jones said the filly was clearly happy when she crossed the finish line.

"I don't know how in the heck they can even come close to saying that," Jones told The Associated Press on Sunday. "She has her ears up, clearly galloping out."

But I Found a Peanut analyzed a 2007 race with Eight Belles and Gabriel Saez:

In 2007, Eight Belles didn't just win this race, but galloped away with it, leaving the field about 14 lengths behind. Watch jockey Saez carefully.

The more Eight Belles pulls away from the others, and the bigger the lead she gains, the more Saez whips her. That's right--her reward for responding to what should have been a signal "tap" or two, is to get repeatedly hit with the stick the faster she runs and the better she does.

Rewind. There clearly is no way that the trailing horses are going to catch up with Eight Belles--unless, of course, she falls--but Saez just piles the whip blows on. That, friends, is just plain nuts as far as racing strategy--as well as cruel and indicative of a major problem.


I don't know enough about horse racing to know whether these arguments are of merit. But we'll see what is said about them in the coming days.

Not that Bob Costas will be saying much.

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