Warren’s World: Triumph and Tragedy

By Beacon Staff

Within three minutes of the finish of the 2008 Kentucky Derby the second place finisher Eight Belles was dead. She fractured both front legs on a very expensive and perfectly prepared dirt track. Why? Here’s my answer in the form of a question.

How can a cowpony run down a rock strewn hillside, across a stream with two feet of water that is full of odd shaped rocks, up the other side and not break a leg?

I found the answer 30 years ago when I was producing a film for Hollywood Park, California. This was a track where a high number of horses had broken their legs every racing season. At the same time I was also producing a film about vacationing in a motor home and filmed a horse whisperer. In 30 minutes he saddled and rode a wild mustang from Montana. I talked with him about the broken-leg problem and he explained it this way:

“A horse has what is called a frog in his hoof which is a highly sophisticated radar device. As his lead hoof reaches out for the ground it wobbles back and forth and tells the leg which way to brace itself.”

I verified his statement by watching films of the racehorse’s lower legs and hoofs taken at 1,000 frames per second. This slows down the action so that it takes almost 40 times as long to see. Sure enough, the hoof does wobble as it reaches for the ground. When a hoof gets plugged up with dirt it cannot sense where the ground is because the radar has lost its sensitivity. This together with the fact that thoroughbreds’ ankles are not a lot larger then a human’s wrist makes for potential trouble.

After talking with the horse whisperer, I asked Charlie Whittingham, one of America’s leading horse trainers at the time, about it. He said, “Sometimes I will take a screw driver and pry the compressed dirt out of the hoof, put it in a bucket of water and it won’t dissolve in a week.”

That is really solid dirt!

When I started to do some sound recording at the racetrack, it was impossible because incoming jet airplanes would fly overhead to land at LAX about every 60 seconds. My conclusion was that the kerosene from the airplane exhausts mixed with the carefully prepared dirt race track was enough of an emulsifier to really make the dirt get solidly pounded into the frog of the horse’s hoof and hence the cause of many of the injuries.

When I went to the management of Hollywood Park with my theory, I was told, “We hired you to make a movie, not to tell us how to run our race track.” The film received more worldwide recognition than any ski film I ever produced. It even won a silver Olympic medal in an Italian film festival.

Did it save any more thoroughbred racehorses from breaking a leg because hoofs were plugged up with dirt?

No!

Some people might say that as the filly Eight Belles made her way around the turn after the finish line she stumbled on the tracks from the twenty horses that had just run around it a few minutes earlier. I don’t think so; unless the frogs in her front hoofs were full of compressed dirt.

Is there a chance that what I have to say about racehorses will be recognized by the thoroughbred community? Probably not. However, it has been a recurrent nightmare when, along with millions of other television viewers, I saw Eight Belles lying in the dirt immediately after the Kentucky Derby. The only reason is that the horseracing community has never come up with some method of keeping dirt from compacting and thus making the frog in the hoof incapable of figuring out where the ground is and on what angle.

Why not some kind of dirt lubricant or a curve to the inside wall of the shoe or at least make it on an angle instead of the right angle it now is so that dirt can no longer get compacted in the hoof?

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