Year after tragedy, it's time to move on

But Eight Belles' owner, trainer will never forget

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 2, 2009 

John Clay

LOUISVILLE — Larry Jones had an Eight Belles wristband. He wore it every day. He said he'd wear it every day until it was too worn out to wear anymore.

Then, on Tuesday, the trainer was at the Churchill Downs chapel doing, as he said, nothing at all.

"All of a sudden, I felt something on my arm," Jones said, reciting the story on Thursday. "It had broke, and was just laying there. I thought, 'OK, it's over. And go on.'"

Truth is, it'll never be over. Not really.

"I don't think it's anything you ever get over," said Rick Porter. "It's just back there, and it surfaces every once in a while."

It's surfacing now.

It was, after all, one year ago that Eight Belles, the filly that Porter owned and Jones trained, finished a valiant second to Big Brown in the 134th Kentucky Derby, only to lose her life just moments after crossing the wire.

Even now, the memory chills. The fracturing of both front ankles. The sound of Dr. Larry Bramlage informing a shocked TV audience that Eight Belles had to be euthanized. The image of the filly lying on the track.

"I can't ever get that picture out of my mind," Porter said.

It has been a long, tough year for both Porter, the semi-retired Delaware auto dealer, and Jones, 52, the Henderson native. Yet here they are again, swinging for the fences, this time with Friesan Fire, one of the Derby 135 favorites, a horse co-owned by Porter and the Vinery, and trained by Jones.

Yet no one forgets 134.

"I do until everybody just keeps asking about it," Jones said, half-serious, half-mocking. "And I haven't had one person who hasn't asked about it."

"You just think how sad it was," Porter said. "Not only for me, but I think about all the people watching. I just remember when it happened to Barbaro in the Preakness. I didn't get over that for a while."

Eight Belles was running in a race that fillies normally do not run. That caused both Jones and Porter to be (wrongfully) criticized by PETA and others.

"I think Larry's gotten over the bitterness part of people attacking him," Porter said. "That bothered him a lot. I think he's gradually gotten over it and focusing on other things. He'll never forget it, just like me. But life goes on."

Jones claims that his life as it is now will soon change. He claims he will retire at the end of 2009. He claims.

"I believe he'll take a nice break," Porter said, smiling.

After all, Jones is too good at what he does, has worked too hard to get where he is, to quit now. And although he insists that the Eight Belles tragedy did not prompt his retirement plans, you have to wonder. And you have to wonder what the two men will be feeling Saturday.

"I try not to focus on the tragedy," Porter said. "I know it's going to be an emotional thing when they have that ceremony between the sixth and seventh race."

That ceremony will celebrate Eight Belles' memory. Then the seventh race will be the inaugural running of the Eight Belles Stakes, a Grade III event for 3-year-old fillies. Larry's wife, Cindy, has entered her filly, Just Jenda, trained by her husband. And Larry has entered Russell Welch's Warrior Maid.

"We would love to win that race," Jones said. He joked: "If (Cindy) won it, at least she wouldn't be giving me a hard time for not winning it."

"Hopefully," Porter said, "I can present Larry the trophy (for the Eight Belles) and move on to the 11th race."

"Move on" being the operative phrase.

"The first race I went to watch (after Eight Belles), I told myself, 'Look, I'm not even going to think about a horse breaking down. If I'm going to worry about that, I might as well get out now,'" Porter said. "I started out forcing myself, and I was lucky enough to keep it out of my mind. And I'm not going to think about it in this race."

Even if the memory's always there.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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