Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Need for Speed Brings Tragedy at the Derby

Previously from Deford

More and more, sport — especially in the United States — has been reduced to speed and power. The very nature of sport, its elemental base, has always been about who's the fastest or who's the strongest. But guile and gumption used to play a larger part in our games.

No one knows why the filly Eight Belles collapsed, her front ankles fractured, right after finishing second at the Kentucky Derby last Saturday. She looked just fine up until the moment she fell. It was like the sad little two-sentence notices you read in the newspaper every once in a while and then forget ... about some apparently healthy high school or college athlete who suddenly, mysteriously collapses and dies at practice.

The difference with Eight Belles, though, is that she did it in the glare of her sport's largest audience. Had she died after the fifth race one Thursday afternoon at Suffolk Downs, no one would have paid much attention. But, of course, horse racing has been cursed: All too often, the everyday tragedy has struck at its premier events. It is sufficient only to cite two names: Ruffian. Barbaro.

So the search is on for immediate villains. Was it the hard dirt track? Did her trainer use gross misjudgment in pitting a brave girl against 19 boys? PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — wants to suspend the jockey, presumably for not being clairvoyant about his mount's condition.

But the fact is, we probably will never really know. Thoroughbreds are such incredibly fragile creatures, half-ton beasts born with a burning desire to run but on candlestick legs. There is an old Bedouin legend that best describes how wispy they really are: "And God took a handful of southerly wind, blew his breath over it and created the horse."

But our mania for speed has made these great, delicate beasts all the more brittle. All 20 horses in the Derby were descended from one great sire — Native Dancer, magnificent gray who lived but a half-century ago. Add to this inbreeding the fact that today drugs are allowed in the United States that are banned most elsewhere, so horses that have no business racing do, and then go to stud and pass on their weaknesses.

Speed, speed. European horses run more tactical races. We just go flat out.

Sterling Moss, an old star of another type of racing, Formula One, once explained it this way: "You see, we have an entirely different concept of speed in Europe. It's relative. You arrive at a 60-miles-per-hour corner, for example, and try going around it at 61. Then you'll know what speed is."

Maybe the closest thing in sport to a thoroughbred's legs is a baseball pitcher's arm. The scouts yearn only for the arms that can throw the hardest, and kid pitchers break down all the time. Young female athletes, thrown into the fray, are suffering a plague of ACL injuries. Likewise, tennis players of both sexes are walking wounded on the hard courts they pound on, their arms torn by the torque of pounding away with synthetic rackets. Football ball-carriers who routinely weigh more than what linemen used to now run faster than ever. Too many of their bodies give out too, too soon.

Speed. Power. Faster. Stronger.

Eight Belles was a horse. But really, she was one of us.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford