A photo taken during the early stages of the Belmont Stakes has revealed Big Brown was running with a loose shoe as the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner attempted to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1979.
Michael Iavarone, a co-president of International Equine Acquisitions Holdings -- Big Brown's stable -- told Newsday that freelance photographer Russ Melton e-mailed him two close-up shots, which he opened late Saturday night.
The photos show a dislodged shoe on the horse's right hind hoof about 200 yards into the Belmont.
There was no evidence of injury to the hoof after the race, but Iavarone didn't think it could have been comfortable for the horse, who was wearing an acrylic patch on his left front hoof to compensate for a painful quarter crack.
"The picture shocked me," Iavarone said, according to the report. "When the shoe spread, a nail could have been pinching him. Or he could have been stepping on a hot nail, which would have been worse. I'm guessing the nail went back in but not in the same spot. Or it could have been a loose shoe, which would be like trying to run with a wobbly cleat."
"Any of those things would be significant for a horse running a mile and a half. The [deep] track was my original explanation. But now I'm thinking the shoe was dislodged during the race and incorrectly reset while he was running."
In an interview last week with the Thoroughbred Times, Greg Bennett, the primary veterinarian for Rick Dutrow, Big Brown's trainer, confirmed the horse had raced with a loose shoe but minimized the impact it might have had on the Belmont performance.
The bay colt was eased up by jockey Kent Desormeaux in the stretch, ending up last, beaten by eight other horses. Later physical examinations of Big Brown by Dutrow discovered nothing out of the ordinary. Blood tests also revealed nothing abnormal.
"It didn't seem to be any soundness issues with the horse," Bennett said, according to the Thoroughbred Times. "He did loosen [the right] hind shoe, but I don't know how much of a factor that was."
But Bennett said in the Newsday report the loose shoe could help explain Big Brown's abrupt fall from grace.
"When a shoe comes off, it does throw a horse out of balance, but it depends how traumatically it happens and at what stage of the race," Bennett told the paper. "A couple nails can loosen up, which can cause a lot of problems and affect a horse's performance.
Meanwhile, Iavarone said Monday the 50-plus horses owned by his stable will be drug free by the end of the year. That includes steroids and all other legal racing medications except for Lasix.
Iavarone said last week's Congressional hearing in which owners, veterinarians and industry officials expressed a strong desire to rid the sport of steroids led to the decision.
"You see that people that are influential in the game all want it," Iavarone told The Associated Press. "Hopefully we're the first of many [owners] to take the step, but you've got to show you really want it."
Dutrow created a stir before the Belmont when he told reporters he decided against giving the horse his monthly dose of stanozolol, a legal steroid sometimes sold under the brand name Winstrol. Some critics speculated Big Brown was suffering from steroid withdrawal during the race, a notion Iavarone dismisses.
U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield -- the ranking Republican on the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection -- called the move a good sign, but doesn't expect to see other owners lining up behind IEAH.
"I'm confident there's not going to be a mass stampede by owners," Whitfield told the AP. "There are owners in some states who fear [by not taking the drugs] they would be less competitive."
Whether other owners come forward and take a similar stance might not matter. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium are pushing the 38 racing states to adopt a model rule that would ban all but four steroids considered therapeutic in nature.
"If they're not going to do it properly, it's going to be imposed upon them," said California Horse Racing Board chairman Robert Shapiro. "I applaud anybody who can see the writing on the wall."
The writing may not be enough. Whitfield isn't convinced the model rule is strong enough, citing the complicated rule-making process in each of the states and the inability to adopt uniform penalties.
"It sounds good to say X state has adopted a uniform rule, but when you look closer you see that they're not really consistent in any way," said Whitfield, who said the government is considering several options, including creating a national body to oversee the sport.
IEAH's position goes far beyond the model rule. When Big Brown heads to the starting gate for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic in Santa Anita in October, he'll be clean, or else.
"We're willing to forgo everything," Iavarone said, according to the AP. "If we win the Breeders' Cup and test for anything positive, even if it's legal, we're going to give up the purse."
A loss on the track would pale in comparison to the loss in the breeding shed.
IEAH sold Big Brown's breeding rights to Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., for a reported $50 million. If he struggles in the summer and fall -- his next race is the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in August -- his stud fee will plummet and the stable's reputation could tumble.
It's a risk the man who grew up hopping the fence at Roosevelt Park in New York to watch the races is willing to take.
"We're trying to take a forward step to regain the public's confidence," Iavarone said. "It comes down to the public in this game. If the public doesn't show up, if the public doesn't bet on horse racing, they're going to stop betting. Is it the end-all, cure-all? I think it's a step in the right direction. I think if owners just agree to play the game the right way, this can only help."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.