Derby Day was a contrast in emotions. For the owners and fans of Big Brown, it was a thrilling day as he overcame several obstacles to win by a convincing four and a half lengths over the filly Eight Belles. Big Brown was the first horse since 1915 to win with only three prior races, and the first horse since 1929 to win from the far outside position. He had also been plagued with lameness prior to the race, and was the first horse in history to win the race wearing plastic flexible shoes instead of the standard metal shoes.

Joe Camp, author of The Soul of a Horse; Life Lessons From the Herd, sees this victory as a victory for all horses. “This is huge,” Camp says. “It could be the impetus needed to get tons of metal shoes off horses’ feet so the hooves can flex as their genetics designed them to do.”

In his book, which was reviewed  here, Camp makes a strong case for allowing horses to go barefoot, saying that the metal shoes they normally wear interferes with the natural movement of a horse’s hoof. “Horses in the wild don’t wear shoes and they are just fine,” he says. “And in my research I discovered that a horse’s hoof is supposed to flex. That flexing helps move blood through a horse’s leg, which keeps it healthy and provides hydraulic-like shock absorption for the tendons, ligaments, and joints of the leg.”

Camp also expressed dismay over the tragic accident that felled Eight Belles as she was galloping out of the race. After coming in second, she suddenly collapsed with two broken front ankles and had to be put down on the spot. Camp believes that this tragedy was the result of the way horses are trained for racing and the fact that they are raced so young. “The death of Eight Belles, even more clearly than that of Barbaro, focuses on the need to stop allowing horses who have not matured skeletally to run in these races,” Camp said after the race.

“The growth plates between the bones in the joints of a horse do not fully mature into strong bone until the horse is four to five-and-a-half years old,” Camp continues. “Yet the horses in the Derby are running at three years old, after usually being trained hard from the time they are one-and-a-half to two years old. It’s way too young.

“And before Big Brown, that training and racing was always done while the horses wore metal shoes nailed to their feet, which among other things multiplies the concussion effect all the way up the leg every time the foot impacts the ground. It’s time for serious change.”

According to an article on, Eight Belles’ injuries were exceptional in their timing and severity, but fatal injuries in racehorses are not that rare. No nationwide statistics are available on thoroughbred breakdowns, but a 1992 Kentucky survey found 1.4 fatalities occurred for every 1,000 starts.

Kathy Guillermo, spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said the group is calling for a ban on race training for horses younger than 3. Like Camp, she believes that the horses are racing before their bones are fully formed and that they should be running on synthetic track surfaces instead of the hard surfaces of most racetracks.

On the other side of the argument are most owners, trainers and jockeys. H. Allen Jerkens, the trainer who had big race winners in the 70s said that the accident with Eight Belles should not make people question the wisdom of racing three-year-old horses. He was quoted in the Newsday article as saying, “There’s nothing new about racing 2-year-olds or 3-year-olds. They get injured at any age, if they put their foot down wrong or there’s something that you can’t see in the bone.”

Others believe that the Thoroughbreds are more prone to this type of injury because their legs and ankles are so small. They discount the concerns about the track conditions or the question of racing horses when they are too young. For them it is a matter of physics, supporting 1,000 pounds on legs that are thinner than those of humans.

No matter where you stand on this debate. There is no argument, that Derby Day was a sad day for many.


Maryann Miller — Maryann’s Website



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