From distance to missed training, Big Brown wasn't ready for race
ELMONT, N.Y .-- We all fell for it, and we should have known better. After five weeks spent watching Big Brown dominate races in Kentucky and Maryland, it was just too easy to go along with trainer Rick Dutrow when he predicted victory for his colt this weekend in New York. That's right, we said, nodding in agreement, nobody else has even come close to the horse, so how can anybody hope to beat him now? So confident were we in his eventual victory that the big bay went off in Saturday's Belmont Stakes at odds of 1-4, the lowest since railbirds sent Spectacular Bid to the post as the 1-5 favorite in 1979. The outcome of the race was a foregone conclusion (never mind that the Bid had eventually lost his Belmont). This was going to be a cakewalk. All that was left was the winning.
Call it what you will -- a shocking upset or cosmic justice -- Big Brown's defeat in the Belmont came down to one factor: the horse was not ready to run a mile and a half. Compromised by several days of missed training due to a quarter-crack in his left front hoof, the Derby and Preakness champion came up empty in the biggest race of his young life, finishing last after jockey Kent Desormeaux pulled him up on the turn for home, and thus depriving thoroughbred racing of a Triple Crown winner for the 30th consecutive year. Big Brown never looked comfortable and seemed off-stride at nearly every call on Saturday. And he didn't make it much further than a mile around Belmont's sweeping oval on Saturday afternoon before he ran out of gas. He had lost the race well before Desormeaux eased off the throttle, beaten badly by 39-1 winner Da'Tara.
And so while it was certainly the most shocking of the recent string of Triple Crown near-misses, it should hardly have been surprising. Thoroughbreds are notoriously high strung and hinky, and even dudes who seem as cool as Big Brown can be thrown off by even the smallest changes to their routine. In addition, trainers take it as gospel that their chargers must be wound tightly to run their best races. So while it is a goal to keep a horse as fresh as possible during the Crown's five-week ordeal, there's also a certain edge that must be maintained. And Big Brown had clearly lost it -- after the race, neither Dutrow nor the track veterinarian could find anything physically wrong with the horse. "Going into the second turn, Kent was all out of horse," said Dallas Stewart, who trained Macho Again to a fifth-place finish.
Perhaps that's why some of the trainers who beat him took such satisfaction in denying the boasting Dutrow of Triple Crown glory. It became clear after the race that by popping off so loudly and frequently, he had violated an unwritten rule of the shedrow. David Carroll, the trainer of runner-up Denis of Cork, did not mince words. Asked if he was sorry that another Triple Crown had been denied, he replied, "Not one little bit. There's a right way and a wrong way to do this. He said my horse was [in effect] a P-O-S. A piece of sh--. It bothered me, yeah. My horse is a good horse. It rubbed me the wrong way."
In the wake of his ignominious defeat, it's hard to know just what the immediate future holds for Big Brown. After he was syndicated for an amount around $50 million on Preakness day, conventional wisdom held that the Belmont would be his last race, win or lose. Dutrow and the rest of the colt's connections asserted last week that they planned to run their star in both the Travers (in August) and the Breeders' Cup Classic (in November). Dutrow was noncommittal after the race, saying he wanted to evaluate his horse's condition before making any decisions. We'll just have to wait and see.
As for racing itself, the sport toddles off into the future without a Triple Crown winner, a state to which the game is by now well accustomed. But there is no denying the impact of this year's series. In many ways, the sport is extremely healthy, producing revenue on par with the NBA (and in excess of the NHL) and drawing massive crowds to its marquee events (Saturday's attendance was 94,476). But several major issues came to the fore this year, including the widespread use of both painkillers and performance-enhancing drugs, as well as the gradual decline of the thoroughbred breed through in-breeding. Triple Crown or no, such problems are going to challenge racing for years to come.