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I Don't Want to Hear It

By Marion E. Altieri

This article is the opinion of Marion E. Altieri.

By a strange set of circumstances, I found out at 8:30 on Saturday morning that I was going to the Derby — that day.

I wasn't planning on it, as I had no media creds or extraordinary ticket. And I am not one to pony up forty bucks to splash around in the mud with The Great Unwashed. The infield at Churchill Downs should be renamed, Arrested Development Section 1. No, no puerile antics for me. But out of the blue, a friend gave me a Third Floor Clubhouse box seat on Derby Morning. Life can be sweet, and filled with unexpected joys and opportunities to sip mint juleps in a box next to rock stars.

I currently reside in Lexington: getting to Louisville on Derby Day was like bobbing and weaving in the Indianapolis 500. Route 64 currently features the most inconsiderate sets of barriers, orange cones and cops in camo. Do they do this on purpose, to test the mettle of horserace fans?

But I got there in record time: the Kentucky State Police probably saw me, wild-eyed, sucking a Big Gulp of Coke and singing "Boogie Wonderland" at the top of my lungs — and were afraid to stop me.

Let her drive, boys, let her drive.

Which, of course, brings us to the subject of this column: Eight Belles. Sure, everyone else here on Planet Earth will discuss her horrific death in detail. We must, in order to process it and come out on the other side. But some journalists in the racing industry will decry Jones, jockey and dirt tracks out of one face — while cloyingly sucking up to Big Brown's connections with their other face. The drive to scoop the other guy will trump the need to respect the dead.

But I'm going to say just one thing: as a woman, who was actually at Churchill Downs at that moment — I am grief-stricken. Beside myself. We in the Clubhouse found out what had happened from cell phone calls. Immediately, we expressed disbelief and began sharing the pain. Numb, I wandered around the track, clutching my program, crying like a weanling being separated from her Mother. To say that I was inconsolable would be an understatement of monumental proportions. I'm still crying two days later. Eight Belles should not have died on that track. However it happened — the whole dialogue about breeding, Native Dancer as ancestor of every horse in that race — I'll leave that conversation for another time.

The thing I need to say now, here, to you wonderful readers is this: make no mistake, Eight Belles' death nearly killed me. But not before my heart — my very soul — swelled with pride and ecstasy. I thought I was going to explode as she roared toward home, nipping at Big Brown's heels. Every woman at Churchill Downs — in the entire world, for that matter — was bellowing as the Belle screamed down that track toward the storied finish line.

She ran a brilliant race. She ran her guts out. She ran down 18 male horses. An Amazon, a Warrior Woman, a Goddess — a living, breathing, obsessed-with-winning Diva. The mighty Azeri cheered in her stall. Winning Colors neighed her approval from her heavenly perch. As Eight Belles breathed down Brown's neck, she spied the pantheon just up ahead.

So I don't want to hear it, any of the drivel and nonsense that she had no right to be in the Derby. That she'd still be alive if she'd run the Oaks. We can't know what God in His Wisdom knows, so quit speculating. She had every right to run against male horses — I know of 18 of 'em who couldn't catch her.

(It happens that I'm Clay's friend at Starbucks who'd bet the Belle across the board. Of course I'm not cashing my ticket — I'm saving it forever, putting it in my wallet cozied next to Seattle Slew's obituary. I wrote a check for the amount I'd have won, and gave it to Michael Blowen of Old Friends [www.OldFriendsEquine.org]. You might consider doing the same.)

Write me to tell me that you gave money, in Eight Belles' name, to Old Friends. Or to Epona Rescue (www.EponaRescue.org). Write to tell me that you, too, grieve this great Warrior. But do not — do NOT — tell me that she "had no right" to be in the Kentucky Derby, to run against males. A pronouncement thus will only reveal your own ignorance and lack of knowledge of equine physiology. She broke two legs, NOT because she was a female — it may be as simple as this: she broke two legs because she was physically a monster, a force of nature, a four-legged hurricane. Two broken legs have nothing to do with possessing female reproductive organs. The shinbone ain't connected to the uterine bone. Eight Belles wasn't a Great Female Horse. She was an Alpha, a powerhouse, a Great Horse, period.

Don't try to diminish her achievements, or her legacy, by displaying your own stupidity. Let's leave the misogyny where it belongs — in the 19th Century.

Let's do spend some time, however — and erect a bronze statue in memorial — to she who was on her way to racing immortality when she was suddenly stopped short by a twist of Fate.

Like a wild-eyed New York Italian woman on a crooked Kentucky highway — let her drive, boys, let her drive.

Marion E. Altieri is a journalist and has been a contributing columnist for "Horse Race Insider" and "Daily Racing News". She is currently Editor-in-Chief and radio show host of Alpha Mare Media serving the Lexington, Kentucky and Saratoga Springs, New York thoroughbred racing industry.

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