LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Boy, did Eight Belles hang with the boys.
All that heart and her gallant fight, however, ended in the worst of all possible ways: a breakdown, an ambulance on the track, and, with no other choice, she was euthanized by injection.
"There was no way to save her. She couldn't stand," trainer Larry Jones said. "She ran an incredible race. She ran the race of her life."
The day began with hope and pomp. Bolstered by the sentimental support from 157,770 fans, the filly finished second in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
She crossed the wire 4¾ lengths behind favorite Big Brown. Then, with the second-largest crowd in Derby history still whooping it up, Eight Belles collapsed with two broken front ankles.
Jones' voice broke and tears glistened in his eyes as he considered his barn without Eight Belles' head poking out of her stall.
"Losing animals like this isn't fun. It's not supposed to happen," he said. "We're heartbroke. We're going to miss her, no doubt."
The field of 19 colts and the dark gray filly were galloping out around the first turn when Eight Belles suddenly went down on both front legs and jockey Gabriel Saez slid off.
"When we passed the wire I stood up," said a distraught Saez, a first-time Derby rider. "She started galloping funny. I tried to pull her up. That's when she went down."
An equine ambulance reached her near the second turn.
"Everyone breathed a big sigh of relief that everyone came around the track cleanly and then all of a sudden it happened," said Dr. Larry Bramlage, on-call veterinarian.
Afterward, Jones disputed any suggestion that Eight Belles had no business taking on the boys.
"It wasn't that, it wasn't the distance, it wasn't a big bumping match for her, she never got touched," he said. "She passed all those questions … with flying colors. The race was over; all we had to do was pull up, come back and be happy. It just didn't happen."
If Eight Belles had labored to the finish line and been falling farther behind Big Brown in the closing strides, Jones said he would have "really second-guessed ourselves severely and kicked ourselves in the pants."
But she hit the wire strongly and galloped around the turn without a hitch, leaving the trainer in the white cowboy hat feeling proud. Jones also trained last year's runner-up, Hard Spun.
"We were ecstatic," he said.
For a time, anyway.
Winning jockey Kent Desormeaux and Big Brown galloped by Eight Belles in her waning moments.
"This horse (Big Brown) showed you his heart, and Eight Belles showed you her life for our enjoyment today," Desormeaux said. "I'm deeply sympathetic to that team for their loss."
Bramlage said the fracture in Eight Belles' left front ankle opened the skin, allowing contamination to set in. At least one of her sesamoid bones was broken, too.
"She didn't have a front leg to stand on to be splinted and hauled off in the ambulance, so she was immediately euthanized," he said. "In my years in racing, I have never seen this happen at the end of the race or during the race."