She was a mere eighth of a mile away when the gallant gray filly snapped her ankle after crossing the finish line at Churchill Downs. And then she snapped her other one.
Riding toward Eight Belles on her way to interview the winner of the 134th Kentucky Derby, NBC Sports broadcaster Donna Brothers had to avert her eyes as she came upon the beautiful horse.
“I could see out of my peripheral vision that she’d broken her ankles, and I never looked again,” says Brothers. She couldn’t. To do so would have reduced her to tears.
With millions of viewers tuned in to the 2008 Derby that day, attention was diverted from Big Brown’s strong, first-place finish, to Eight Belles, the startlingly beautiful gray who lay on the ground in distress.
As the closest reporter to the scene, Brothers fielded questions from fellow broadcasters about Eight Belles’ condition. Knowing in her gut that it looked bad for the horse, she maintained her composure, avoiding the temptation to overstep her bounds and discuss the animal’s medical condition on air.
Stating simply, “We’ll have to wait and see,” Brothers soldiered on, conducting interviews as a pall hung over the usually festive racetrack.
“It was really difficult for me to keep it together,” Brothers told The Daily Racing Form in a recent interview. “But I know what my job is, so getting too emotional is someplace I just can’t go. It sure wouldn’t look very professional if they came to me, and I was bawling.”
Brothers has lived and breathed horse racing since she was a child.
Her mother Patti Barton was one of the first female jockeys to be licensed in the United States, and in 1970, was the most winning jockey, in both male and female ranks.
And Brothers was a winning jockey in her own right, getting more than 1,100 first-place finishes in an 11-year career that ended in 1998.
As she segued directly into racing broadcasting, her association with the sport continued to deepen her admiration for the racehorse Thoroughbred.
So much so that an accident-prone racehorse, a gelding so placid he could be ridden on a loose rein under practically any circumstances, was the one she decided to take home.
“He was such a laid back horse,” Brothers recalls. “We could be walking by racing horses, or going the wrong way, and he was just such a cool horse.
“I always said that if he can’t race, I want him.”
She adopted Snare, a 1996 Kentucky bred sired by Lure, in 2000; however, she quickly discovered he was a far different personality away from the track than he was when working full-time.
Once unplugged from the routine and rigor however, he became too rambunctious to be happy as a pleasure horse, she says.
“I tried him in a stock western saddle and he was no way near as laid back as he was before. It turned out that he was the type of horse that needed to be ridden every day.”
Realizing that not all Thoroughbreds are perfect away from the track, she found a new owner, and a new job for Snare.
“One of my husband’s friends needed a pony to ride everyday. He got Snare and loved him!”
But Brothers continues to champion the retired racers who were for many years, her source of inspiration as well as income. As she says: “Horses have been putting food on my table since my earliest memory. Everything I have, they’ve given me: The clothes I wear, my house, my car, even the job I have.”
To give back to the Thoroughbreds, Brothers has begun serving on the newly formed Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. The organization, funded with seed money from Breeders’ Cup, The Jockey Club, and Keeneland Association, according to BloodHorse.com, aims to galvanize support for ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds among industry stakeholders, including owners, tracks, breeders, trainers, jockeys and bloodstock agents.
“It’s a fledgling organization (formed this month) intent on establishing long-term, reliable funding for the care of OTTBs,” she explains.
Brothers has also begun speaking at events showcasing the talents of ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds in second careers. She is speaking March 16 in Lexington, Va., at the Thoroughbred Celebration Horse Show.
“I just feel an obligation to help,” she says.
And Brothers would love to help attract a new generation of horse-racing enthusiasts.
In her new book Inside Track: Insider’s Guide to Horse Racing, Brothers offers basic tips and advice to the track-going novice. What to wear, how to bet, how to watch a race, and where to see the best racing, are all revealed in this Eclipse Press book.
“There’s such a huge learning curve for people, especially those who only go a couple times a year,” she says. “This book is like a Zagat’s guide for them.”
While certainly horse racing is a sport that has been through “hundreds of years of challenges,” Brothers has every confidence the sport will continue to attract a loyal following, despite the highs and lows inherent in the business.
“Since I’ve been in racing, I’ve heard everything from, ‘Racing is on the decline,’ or, ‘what a black eye’ some event will be, or how ‘this one horse will save the industry,’ ” she says. “It’s going to ebb and a flow, and no one horse will be a savior of the game.”
But, as the industry continues to work to do its part for ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds via organizations like the newly formed Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, and through other endeavors, Donna Brothers proudly covers the sport, and does her part for the animals that have carried her from success to success.