ELMONT, N.Y. - Standing by himself, the sweat having turned his blue shirt into one large stain, leaning over a wooden railing, as the colt he trained to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness slowly walked around the detention barn at old Belmont Park early Saturday evening, Rick Dutrow was the bozo on the plank over the dunk tank. Everybody - other trainers, media, gamblers who bet $6.5 million to win on Big Brown in the Belmont Stakes - wanted to be the first to fire something, anything at the trainer.
Since the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby right through the "foregone conclusion" of the Belmont, Dutrow had made himself an easy target, if Big Brown lost a race.
Big Brown did not just lose the Belmont. The colt had nothing left by the 5/8-pole, more than 1,000 yards from the finish line. Jockey Kent Desormeaux, perhaps embarrassed and/or perplexed, refused to let the horse run through the stretch, in some perverse way sort of repeating his performance when the horses left the starting gate.
After Big Brown became the first horse in search of the Triple Crown to finish last, Dutrow was a convenient target, a target that was hard to resist. On this day, in this race, however, he was the wrong target.
Big Brown had a gigantic tactical advantage. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner was the lone speed in a field filled with plodders.
And Desormeaux was too scared and too passive to take advantage of it. He was so worried about being second-guessed that he ceded control of the race to a jockey on a horse with one win in seven starts.
Da' Tara, the only other colt in the race with even a hint of early speed, had raced once against Big Brown. After the first call of the Florida Derby, Da' Tara was eighth, trailing Big Brown by 6 lengths; it was 23 1/2 lengths at the finish line.
Da' Tara does not have much speed, especially in relation to Big Brown. But, in the first 20 seconds of the Belmont, Desormeaux was pulling so hard against the reins that Big Brown was crying to be set free. The rider got his horse boxed in, was fighting with him and had to force his way outside into the clear as the field entered the first turn.
Eibar Coa, riding Tale of Ekati, was then able to push Big Brown out into the middle of the track in the long run down the backstretch as Da' Tara cruised in front through tepid fractions of 23.82 seconds, 48.30 and 1 minute, 12.90 seconds on a very quick race track, the kind of fractions that Big Brown could have set easily if only the rider had let him.
From the grandstand it might have looked like the Derby and Preakness, Big Brown sitting just off the early lead, ready to pounce. What happens early in a race, however, often affects what happens at the end.
"Desormeaux waits, Desormeaux waits," track announcer Tom Durkin cried out as the lead pack crawled down the backstretch. The jockey certainly was not Ron Turcotte on Secretariat in the 1973 Derby and Preakness when that rider sensed the situations and was aggressive.
When Desormeaux, sensing trouble, decided to press the button entering the far turn, there was no response.
"I had no horse," the rider said.
Well, he had horse at the start, but rode not to lose, overwhelmed by the moment, not wanting to be questioned for moving too soon as many had wrongly said about his move on Real Quiet in the 1998 Belmont Stakes that finished a nose shy of the Triple Crown.
Da' Tara ran the 1 1/2 miles in a very slow 2:29.65 and still won by 5 1/4 lengths over Denis of Cork. Dutrow was right when he said this was not a strong group. Big Brown had beaten these horses over and over.
Would Big Brown have won with different tactics? We will never know, but we do know he finished last with these tactics.
The last four Triple Crown winners - Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed - all won the Belmont by going wire-to-wire in front. Their riders all knew they were on the best horses and conceded nothing.
It was assumed that something must have gone wrong with Big Brown, that he must have been injured or sick or something. Turned out there was nothing wrong.
It is certainly possible the colt just went off form. Maybe there is some lingering issue that will manifest itself in the coming days. Or something that is turned into an issue.
The Triple Crown grind, the third race in 5 weeks, may have caught up with Big Brown. It was the colt's fifth race since March 5 after not racing since the previous September and missing months of training due to serious foot issues.
It was the first brutally hot day of the year. Some horses don't adapt to the heat.
Forget the quarter crack and the steroid regimen, whatever that was or was not.
Regardless of tactics, Big Brown should have had some run on the turn. As Desormeaux and Big Brown cantered through the stretch, fans booed and threw paper cups. It was probably the 11th time some of them had come to Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line since 1978. They wanted to see history. They did. They saw a horse who had never lost fail to beat a single horse.
Credit trainer Nick Zito with correctly anticipating Desormeaux's passive ride and instructing his rider, Alan Garcia, to send 38-1 shot Da' Tara to the lead and seize the tactical high ground.
"Looking over the PPs [past performances], I don't think Big Brown wanted the lead," Zito said. "I said, 'I think we're the only speed, let's take a shot.' ''
When 2008 began, few had heard of Big Brown. The pre-Derby season was going to be about unbeaten 2-year-old champion War Pass, trained by Zito and owned by Robert LaPenta. War Pass never duplicated that 2007 form and was gone by the Derby.
But there were Zito and LaPenta in the Belmont winner's circle with a completely unknown colt. Who knew?
Da' Tara got a 99 Beyer speed figure, a number gained under optimal conditions and still worse than anything Big Brown had ever done.
Dutrow did not elicit a lot of sympathy. Just about everybody inside and outside the sport wants a Triple Crown winner. They just didn't necessarily want this one.
The racing gods finally caught up to the trainer who had all the answers before he even heard the questions. When Big Brown got beat, he held the first media horde off by saying, "Don't even think about it."
Then, when cornered outside the detention barn, he said: "I was looking for a problem. So far I can't say that I see a problem."
Somebody asked Dutrow to "describe the disappointment."
The trainer does not really do feelings so that was not a question he could handle.
"I don't know that I could describe it," he said. "But it's there."
So what about Big Brown?
"I can say it looks like he'll live a good life if he never races again," Dutrow said. "It's not where it's all that disappointing. We didn't get the Triple Crown but we won the Derby and the Preakness. That was great. Now we're just trying to figure out what happened in the race."
Big Brown was housed in Barn 2 on the massive Belmont Park backstretch, not far from the intersection of Count Fleet Road and Secretariat Boulevard. Just the other side of the intersection sits Barn 5, where 4 years ago the final acts of the Smarty Jones racing saga played out.
As the backstretch began to clear Saturday night, the stage where Smarty's trainer John Servis held court in 2004 was still there in the clearing, near a few bikes laying against a wall, a squirrel dancing in the gathering darkness.
A big red Ford van was parked at the entrance to the area where so many had gathered waiting for Smarty to run. Painted on it was: "Go Big Brown. Triple Crown winner."
Stewart Elliott was criticized for his ride on Smarty Jones when, in reality, he was just a victim of other riders' tactics. At least, Elliott went for it.
In the last attempt for the Triple Crown, Smarty Jones did everything but win. Everybody felt so bad when he didn't that even the winners were apologizing. There were no apologies this time.
Big Brown is a very good horse, but his story never captured the public like Smarty Jones. There were 94,476 fans at Belmont to see Big Brown, 120,139 to see Smarty.
Times change. Horse racing changes. We change.
We wonder about the occasional randomness of the game. We search for some deep meaning. And, 30 years after Affirmed, we wait. *
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