IN GATHERINGdarkness last Saturday at Belmont Park, trainer Nick Zito watched as horseswalked on a dirt path inside his backstretch barn, cooling themselves afterracing in punishing 90° heat. A tall, brown colt walked slowly past on agroom's lead, dropping and then raising his head with each weary step."Hey, Da' Tara," said Zito, calling the horse's name in a raspy growl.Then he turned to a small group of visitors. "Right there," said Zito,nodding toward the horse. "That's the winner." ¬∂ Bedraggled spectatorsshuffled along, carrying racing programs from the 140th Belmont Stakes, inwhich history was supposed to be made but instead was simply reinforced.Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown had gone to the starting gate asthe shortest-priced favorite (1--4) since Spectacular Bid was 1--5 in 1979 andhad finished dead last in a field of nine, eased to an exhausted jog by jockeyKent Desormeaux with more than a quarter mile left in the 1 1/2-mile race. Nowthe giant racetrack and its sprawling grounds slouched as if exhausted byanother Triple Crown chase fallen short (the 11th in 30 years since Affirmedwon in 1978), by passions again unrequited, by another horse proved merely goodand undeniably not great.
Zito's Da' Tara,owned by New York communications entrepreneur Robert LaPenta, won the race by 51/4 lengths at odds of 38--1, the longest in the field. He led every step underjockey Alan Garcia and brought the furious 3-year-old classic season to astrangely symmetrical conclusion; in January the leading contender on most toutlists was War Pass, trained by Zito, owned by LaPenta and eventually sidelinedwith a fractured ankle. But all of this is a footnote to the story of awould-be superhorse who became less than ordinary and, in defeat, tossed thesport into a tangle of sharp emotions.
Undefeated infive career starts, Big Brown had won the Derby and Preakness with ease, justas his trainer, Rick Dutrow, had predicted. Dutrow spoke likewise before theBelmont, calling the outcome "a foregone conclusion," and dismissed theopposition as a weak group. Two days before the race he said, "I know myhorse; I know the other horses. I don't see any problem." Whatever thequality of the field, it was weakened by the race-day scratch of Casino Drive,the Japan-based half brother to the previous two Belmont winners, Jazil andRags to Riches.
A recoveringcocaine addict with an epic backstory of personal and professional resiliency,Dutrow, 49, delivered his pronouncements matter-of-factly, and with goodreason. "The horse," said retired Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Baileybefore the Belmont, "does things that are very rare."
The horse,however, did not tread a smooth path from the Preakness to the Belmont. A weekafter his dominating win on May 17, Big Brown developed a V-shaped crack in hisleft front hoof (called a "quarter crack" in racing parlance). It wastreated by Ian McKinlay, an amiable hoof specialist who was transformedinstantly into a backstretch celebrity, conducting his own daily pressbriefings on an arcane subject that Dutrow repeatedly dismissed asinsignificant.
Others on theBelmont backstretch were not so certain, pointing out that even if the hoof wasnot causing pain, it was surely causing Dutrow to alter Big Brown's trainingschedule. The horse breezed just once between the Kentucky Derby and theBelmont (five furlongs four days before the Belmont), a very light trainingschedule. "I wouldn't want to be in their situation," Zito said lastThursday. "No matter how you look at it, it can't be the way they wantit."
Three days beforethe race Billy Turner, the trainer of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew,reflected on seeing horses come up short at the Belmont in their bid to winracing's jewel. "You appreciate how difficult it is," said Turner."I know that Richard Dutrow is feeling that right now because he's got thebest horse. But the best horse doesn't always win. He hasn't trained the horsethe way he'd really like to, so with [the media] he's bluffing his waythrough."
Race day broughta familiar tableau: a huge crowd (94,476, the fourth-largest in Belmonthistory), a crescendo of noise as the horses were loaded into the starting gateand a palpable sense of hunger. Yet it was not a smooth race for Big Brown.Desormeaux rode a first furlong that was quirky at best, panicky at worst.Initially he tried to hustle Big Brown into a tiny gap between leader Da' Tara(on the rail) and Tale of Ekati, possibly clipping Tale of Ekati's right rearleg and causing a long gash. Forced to check for several jumps when that holeclosed, Desormeaux then bulled Big Brown to the outside, bouncing off AnakNakal.
Once in positionon the backstretch Big Brown ambled along in third place, but with more than ahalf mile to run, Desormeaux began urging a horse who had typically dragged himto the lead with little asking. It was an ominous sign. Jeremy Rose, who rodeBig Brown in his maiden race last September and was running in seventh place onIcabad Crane, said, "I could tell at the half-mile pole that he wasn'thimself."
In the middle ofthe second turn, just before the long run down the Belmont stretch, Big Browndropped abruptly from third place to last. Desormeaux angled the colt outsidein front of the grandstand and pulled him up to a pedestrian jog to the finish,a stunning scene with admirable undertones. (Desormeaux was refusing to abuseBig Brown with his whip when victory was not possible.) For the seventh time in12 years Belmont's sound track was transformed from a desperate roar to astunned buzz.
In the immediateaftermath Dutrow and his staff examined Big Brown and found him unhurt."Most likely his training was compromised [by the hoof injury]," saidHall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, "and it was that, not the talent ofthe horse."
IT HAS becomeroutine for media and racing insiders to suggest that a Triple Crown is vitalto the long-term health of the sport because it would create a spike ininterest that would last beyond the Belmont (a questionable theory). Popularsupport for Big Brown is difficult to gauge, but inside the game there was aresentment of Dutrow (and perhaps owners IEAH Stables, with their nakedlyeconomic goals) that spilled into the backstretch on Saturday evening.
David Carroll,who trains Belmont runner-up Denis of Cork, spat out words as he filled abucket with cold water for his horse. "You're supposed to win withclass," said Carroll. "He's saying his horse has beaten nothing andhe's running against nothing. I was upset by that."
In an adjacentbarn, trainer Dallas Stewart, whose Macho Again ran fifth, pulled on a bottleof Corona and angrily threw a lime into a trash can. "I've never heardanybody mouth off like that, and I've been around the track for 30 years,"said Stewart. "There's no need to talk smack like that."
Trainer BobBaffert, who three times fell short of the Triple Crown in the Belmont (1997,'98 and 2002), defended Dutrow. "Rick won the Kentucky Derby," saidBaffert. "You know what a big deal that is? None of those guys [Carroll orStewart] has a Kentucky Derby statuette. He talked like he did because thathorse is like one of his children to him. He really loves that horse. When youfeel like that, you can talk all you want."
Zito, who alsobroke up the last Triple Crown try when his Birdstone ran down Smarty Jones in'04, said, "I'd like to focus on the positive, but I know this: Beforehonor, humility; you've got to be humble."
Meanwhile,Dutrow's April statement that he routinely gives his horses a monthly injectionof the anabolic steroid Winstrol put Dutrow and Big Brown at the center of adebate on whether steroids should be banned. Dutrow said before the Belmontthat Big Brown had not been given Winstrol since April 15, which will promptspeculation that Big Brown was a lesser horse without the juice and thus a lessdeserving champion.
On Sunday, IEAHcopresident Michael Iavarone said that if Big Brown is healthy, he will run inthe Jim Dandy or the Travers at Saratoga in late August. But a $50 millionstallion deal with Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky awaits, and given theoutcome of the Belmont, future racing would seem problematic and financiallypointless.
Recent historysuggests that Big Brown will disappear as swiftly as he emerged, a precocioustalent whose racing career unfolded in nine months, by turns brilliant,controversial and, at the end, deeply disappointing. It is even more certainthat, come winter, racing will attach itself to the next Big Brown, the nextSmarty Jones, the next Funny Cide and run desperately toward another Juneconfrontation with its own rich history, inviting another day of anticipation,longing and failure.
Desormeaux began urging a horse who had typicallydragged him to the lead with little asking. It was AN OMINOUS SIGN.
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Get a photo gallery of Triple Crown near misses,including Smarty Jones's failed bid in 2004.
Photograph by Bill Frakes
UPSET SPECIAL Garcia took Da' Tara (opposite) to the lead and never lost it, while Big Brown (inset) was out of sorts.
Photograph by Bill Frakes
[See caption above]
ROUGH RIDE Desormeaux (white silks) made some questionable decisions early on, and Big Brown got knocked around.