WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The trainer of Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles, which was put down when it collapsed shortly after Saturday’s race, has slammed critics of jockey Gabriel Saez as uneducated about the racing industry.
Larry Jones also said the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) jumped into the fray over the euthanized horse in an effort to raise money.
“We have photos 50 to 70 yards from where this happened and the horse had her ears up and she was happy,” Jones told Reuters in a telephone interview on Monday.
“If this horse had anything going on with her at the time, she didn’t know it. If the horse never had a clue, there’s no way the jockey could have had a clue.”
About a quarter-mile after finishing second to Big Brown in the $2 million Derby, Eight Belles collapsed on the Churchill Downs track with two shattered ankles and was put down by lethal injection.
PETA in a statement called for the suspension of Saez, “who whipped Eight Belles mercilessly as she came down the stretch,” and for her owners to forfeit the $400,000 in prize money.
Jones vigorously defended his jockey, saying Saez “did everything great” during and after Saturday’s mile-and-a-quarter race.
“As a matter of fact, I liked the way he galloped out better than I did the winner and the third-place finisher (Denis of Cork),” said Jones.
”He got her over to a part of the racetrack that had no hoofprints in it. The horses close to the rail were running over a part of the track that already had hoofprints in it.
”He got mine over to a part where there was nothing. This kid (Saez) couldn’t have done a better job in any part of this. It’s horrible to try and crucify this kid.
“People who are criticizing him don’t understand the sport.”
Saez said in a statement, “All I could sense under me was how eager she was to race.”
Jones accused PETA of using Eight Belles’ demise as a way to boost their own coffers to save cats and dogs that have to be put down because of a lack of funds.
“I think maybe their heart is in the right place,” said Jones. “But they’re very uneducated on what this is. They’re trying to rally around something to try and raise money for something they’re underfunded on.”
PETA told Reuters they want an investigation into the incident.”
“It is possible the horse began to feel pain and would have slowed down but couldn’t because she was being whipped,” said PETA spokeswoman Kathy Guillermo. “We want to know.”
Jones said the data is inconclusive on Polytrack, a synthetic surface used at various courses around the country in an effort to slow the number of horses breaking down.
Churchill Downs still uses a dirt track but Jones said it “was as good that day as I’ve ever seen it.”
“Eight Belles did not realize it at the time but she was putting her life on the line to do something we ask her to but that she enjoyed doing,” said Jones. “She liked competing.”
Editing by Miles Evans