"There will never be another Triple Crown winner." -- Eddie Arcaro, 1986
A star born in Louisville five weeks ago steepened the ascent in Baltimore, then crashed at the door of immortality in New York on Saturday -- and crashed hard.
Big Brown looked history in the eye in the 140th Belmont Stakes; stood undefeated in the starting gate with 94,476 people, most in his corner, creating a sense of anticipation that enveloped a grandstand packed cheek to jowl as long as the Empire State Building is high. Casino Drive, the main threat to interrupt this rhythmic assault on the Triple Crown, had been scratched early in the day because of a bruised hoof. The Belmont, as Big Brown's trainer Rick Dutrow had proclaimed, was a "foregone conclusion." The place quivered.
Many of those on their feet at that moment had seen Smarty Jones fail in the attempt to become the 12th horse in history to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. They had also seen War Emblem, Charismatic, Real Quiet, Silver Charm, Sunday Silence, Alysheba, Pleasant Colony and Spectacular Bid fail where Affirmed, 30 years ago, was the last to succeed. Some had seen Affirmed fight off Alydar, Seattle Slew and Secretariat's completion of the Triple Crown with the greatest race ever run. The desire to see another Triple Crown winner, to witness history, was palpable at Belmont Park when the bell rang for the 11th race.
For the next 2 minutes, 29.65 seconds, they stood silent, the storied New York roar that salutes a Triple Crown winner pent up, waiting at first to explode, then put away for another year, or decade or for who knows how long.
Never has a horse eligible to win the Triple Crown offered less in the Belmont than did Big Brown, who was the 19th to fail and the first to finish last -- eased to a walk while those drawn to this spectacle stood silent, disappointed, blank. History can be cruel. Tom Durkin, the announcer in New York, called the performance "desultory," a word heard infrequently in a race call but a perfect selection on this day.
With five furlongs to run, aside from a bit of crowding in the run to the first turn, nothing seemed to indicate that the 3-10 favorite was in trouble. Jockey Kent Desormeaux, confident in the familiar, decisive turn of foot with which Big Brown had seized the Derby and Preakness, sensed that the moment was right to engage the front-running Da' Tara. When he did, "I had no horse. Nothing."
There was nothing subtle about Desormeaux's plea to Big Brown. He rode hard, head down, arms pumping, scrubbing on his mount's massive neck for three-sixteenths of a mile but was unable to pass Tale of Ekati, who had stalked the leader from the outset, then eased his mount before reaching the quarter pole.
"I was watching Big Brown," said Nick Zito, trainer of 38-1 Da' Tara, who was never threatened from behind. "When he wasn't getting close, I was getting very happy."
Zito has been here before, having upset Smarty Jones with Birdstone four years ago. He grasps the reality of racing's uncertainty. If anything can happen in a horse race, Zito realizes that some twists of fate bring unexpected victory.
The immediate concern was that Big Brown suffered an injury, which is not out of the question, though the humbled behemoth walked off the racetrack showing no sign of distress while the endless spew of bravado that flowed from Dutrow came immediately to mind.
The crack to the left fore-hoof dismissed as inconsequential, his derision of the competition, a smug confidence that flirted with arrogance -- all came ringing back, if not in Dutrow's ears, then in those who had listened.
Back at Barn 2, in which Assault (1946) remains the last Triple Crown winner to have been quartered, Dutrow said he saw nothing that would explain what he and the nation had just seen.
"The horse looks like he's fine to me," he said, "so the only thing I know to do is wait and see how things go. I watched him cool out and he doesn't seem to be off in any kind of way. I don't see a problem and I'm looking for one. Something has to not be right, so I have to try to find out what it is."
What it is, more than likely, is the end of the Big Brown story. The most visible of his owners, Michael Iavarone, said last week that Big Brown, whose breeding rights have been sold to Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky for a reported $50 million, would remain in training only if he came out of the Belmont 100 percent. Obviously, considering the hoof injury, he neither went into nor came out of the Belmont 100 percent.
"Right now," Dutrow said, "I can say it looks like he'll live a good life if he never races again."