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IN GATHERING darkness last Saturday at Belmont Park, trainer Nick Zito watched as horses walked on a dirt path inside his backstretch barn, cooling themselves after racing in punishing 90� heat. A tall, brown colt walked slowly past on a groom'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 spectators shuffled along, carrying racing programs from the 140th Belmont Stakes, in which history was supposed to be made but instead was simply reinforced. Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown had gone to the starting gate as the shortest-priced favorite (1--4) since Spectacular Bid was 1--5 in 1979 and had finished dead last in a field of nine, eased to an exhausted jog by jockey Kent Desormeaux with more than a quarter mile left in the 1 1/2-mile race. Now the giant racetrack and its sprawling grounds slouched as if exhausted by another Triple Crown chase fallen short (the 11th in 30 years since Affirmed won in 1978), by passions again unrequited, by another horse proved merely good and undeniably not great.
Zito's Da' Tara, owned by New York communications entrepreneur Robert LaPenta, won the race by 5 1/4 lengths at odds of 38--1, the longest in the field. He led every step under jockey Alan Garcia and brought the furious 3-year-old classic season to a strangely symmetrical conclusion; in January the leading contender on most tout lists was War Pass, trained by Zito, owned by LaPenta and eventually sidelined with a fractured ankle. But all of this is a footnote to the story of a would-be superhorse who became less than ordinary and, in defeat, tossed the sport into a tangle of sharp emotions.
Undefeated in five career starts, Big Brown had won the Derby and Preakness with ease, just as his trainer, Rick Dutrow, had predicted. Dutrow spoke likewise before the Belmont, calling the outcome "a foregone conclusion," and dismissed the opposition as a weak group. Two days before the race he said, "I know my horse; I know the other horses. I don't see any problem." Whatever the quality 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 and Rags to Riches.
A recovering cocaine addict with an epic backstory of personal and professional resiliency, Dutrow, 49, delivered his pronouncements matter-of-factly, and with good reason. "The horse," said retired Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey before the Belmont, "does things that are very rare."
The horse, however, did not tread a smooth path from the Preakness to the Belmont. A week after his dominating win on May 17, Big Brown developed a V-shaped crack in his left front hoof (called a "quarter crack" in racing parlance). It was treated by Ian McKinlay, an amiable hoof specialist who was transformed instantly into a backstretch celebrity, conducting his own daily press briefings on an arcane subject that Dutrow repeatedly dismissed as insignificant.
Others on the Belmont backstretch were not so certain, pointing out that even if the hoof was not causing pain, it was surely causing Dutrow to alter Big Brown's training schedule. The horse breezed just once between the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont (five furlongs four days before the Belmont), a very light training schedule. "I wouldn't want to be in their situation," Zito said last Thursday. "No matter how you look at it, it can't be the way they want it."
Three days before the 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 win racing's jewel. "You appreciate how difficult it is," said Turner. "I know that Richard Dutrow is feeling that right now because he's got the best horse. But the best horse doesn't always win. He hasn't trained the horse the way he'd really like to, so with [the media] he's bluffing his way through."
Race day brought a familiar tableau: a huge crowd (94,476, the fourth-largest in Belmont history), a crescendo of noise as the horses were loaded into the starting gate and 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 rear leg and causing a long gash. Forced to check for several jumps when that hole closed, Desormeaux then bulled Big Brown to the outside, bouncing off Anak Nakal.
Once in position on the backstretch Big Brown ambled along in third place, but with more than a half mile to run, Desormeaux began urging a horse who had typically dragged him to the lead with little asking. It was an ominous sign. Jeremy Rose, who rode Big Brown in his maiden race last September and was running in seventh place on Icabad Crane, said, "I could tell at the half-mile pole that he wasn't himself."
In the middle of the second turn, just before the long run down the Belmont stretch, Big Brown dropped abruptly from third place to last. Desormeaux angled the colt outside in 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 abuse Big Brown with his whip when victory was not possible.) For the seventh time in 12 years Belmont's sound track was transformed from a desperate roar to a stunned buzz.