ELMONT, N.Y. - The worst thought was the natural one. It instantly flashed through Big Brown's trainer Rick Dutrow and 94,476 sweat-soaked fans at Belmont Park and a national television audience, sickened by a familiar feeling.

Instead of racing to the Triple Crown, Big Brown eased to the outside of the track, pulled up by jockey Kent Desormeaux, out of the Belmont Stakes.

Dutrow's initial thought: "Something was wrong." He meant wrong physically, really wrong, heartbreakingly wrong. The sport couldn't have another Barbaro or Eight Belles here, could it?

But as the longest shot in the field, 38-1 Da' Tara, crossed first under the wire, Desormeaux kept riding Big Brown slowly toward the finish line. When the jockey hopped off, he patted him on his flank and turned away, offering no indications that he thought Big Brown was injured.

Desormeaux later said that it wasn't worthwhile to ride Big Brown hard for a fifth-place finish, "so I took care of him. . . . I had no horse. There were no popped tires. He was just out of gas."

Da' Tara led the entire way, winning by 51/4 lengths, gaining Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito his second Belmont Stakes. The New Yorker also trained Birdstone, the horse who beat Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont, the last time the Triple Crown was on the line at Belmont.

Da' Tara raced seven previous times and won once. His only other matchup with Big Brown was in the Florida Derby. Da' Tara had finished ninth, 231/2 lengths behind.

Even if Big Brown turns out to be uninjured, Desormeaux knew the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner wasn't himself. Desormeaux tapped him with his whip on the far turn, asking him to go with 5/8ths of a mile left in a 11/2-mile race, with two horses in front of him, Da' Tara and Tale of Ekati, still cruising just ahead.

"Let's engage," Desormeaux had thought. Asking his horse to go with so much left in the race was a bad sign. When Big Brown didn't respond, it became clear to Desormeaux that the horse wasn't going to be the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first in 30 years.

On the first turn, Big Brown bumped with Anak Nakal, trained by Zito. Anak Nakal finished third, behind second-place Denis of Cork.

There's no way of knowing if that bump affected Big Brown.

"I was watching him when he came down the stretch - he was not showing any lameness," said Larry Bramlage, one of the veterinarians on hand.

Leaving the track and going through the paddock, led by exercise rider Michelle Nevin, Big Brown walked without missing a step. There was a streak of sweat along his back where his saddle had been.

As Big Brown spent almost 40 minutes in a detention barn, walking around the shed row, cooling out until he could give a urine sample, Dutrow leaned against a wooden railing, his Trump International hat off his balding and soaked head, the line of sweat on his shirt down almost to the belt line. He stared straight ahead as his horse walked around inside the barn, passing close to his trainer, actually stopping each time he got right to him.

"He doesn't seem to be off in any kind of way," Dutrow said as soon as Big Brown gave his urine test and left the barn. "I don't see a problem - and I'm looking for one."

Dutrow said he would have his veterinarian scope Big Brown, sending a fiberglass tube down his throat to see if anything is wrong.

"I'm resorting to scoping him, and he didn't even cough," Dutrow said, noting that he hadn't had a chance to talk to Desormeaux or even watch a replay of the race.

As Dutrow watched his horse, David Carroll, trainer of Denis of Cork, was at the fence talking to reporters. Asked if he was upset about there being no Triple Crown winner, the Irishman said, "No, not one little bit. . . . You win with class, you lose with class. That's the way I was brought up."

He was referring to Dutrow's cocky daily proclamations since before the Kentucky Derby, which made for great headlines but weren't welcome around the stables.

"Believe me, I got a lot of phone calls," Carroll said, from people right after the race who felt the same way. Two Dutrow staffers were sitting by the fence listening to Carroll, who couldn't have cared less.

"I feel bad for the horse," he said. "I hope he is fine."

Dutrow said his boasts did not hurt his horse. But three races in five weeks, the last on a 96-degree day, when he had never been challenged, never truly tested - something was clearly too much for him. Dutrow said he didn't think it was the quarter crack Big Brown suffered in his foot or the three days of missed training.

The bottom line was that the horse who had raced the most recently was the tired horse, and another racetrack maxim held up: If a horse gets loose on the lead, he will probably win, as the long shot did yesterday.

The boastfulness drained out of him, Dutrow said, "It's not the horse's fault."

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Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.