A humbling game

Trainer Rick Dutrow said he was "numb" as he watched his failed Triple Crown runner, Big Brown, stagger across the finish line far behind the rest of the field in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

Weren't we all.

Many of us had numbed ourselves into rooting for the horse to become the sport's first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. We pulled for him, even though it somehow didn't feel right.

We didn't like the people around Big Brown, especially his boorish, bad-boy trainer, yet we pulled for him to win. We didn't like the fact Big Brown was a Winstrol wonder, getting a monthly injection of the synthetic steroid to boost his performance, yet we pulled for him to win. We didn't like the fact his majority owners, the too-slick-to-trust boys from IEAH Stable, were money hustlers who would retire Big Brown to stud as soon as the check cleared the bank from his stallion suitors at Three Chimneys Farm.

Yet we pulled for him to win.

It's about the horse, we constantly reminded ourselves, not the people.

On this hot and humid June afternoon, however, it became impossible to separate racing people from the horses who play the game. The history of the sport has been graced with so many good and decent men and women. Do we really need to celebrate those who would bring it dishonor?

When dawn broke and news reports confirmed the injury-forced scratch of Casino Drive, the colt expected to be Big Brown's chief rival in the Belmont, thoughts went to that colt's owner and trainer, along with the many Japanese fans and media members who followed him halfway around the world to see if he could make history of his own.

Then came word that racing lost two stalwarts, Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Croll and the legendary sportscaster Jim McKay. It would be difficult to find two finer gentlemen than Croll, who is best remembered as trainer of 1994 Horse of the Year Holy Bull, or McKay, a Maryland Thoroughbred owner and breeder and the longtime host of Triple Crown telecasts on ABC Sports.

So it was with mixed emotions as I watched Big Brown break from the starting gate in this 140th running of the Belmont Stakes, the so-called test of the champion, a race that has foiled 10 other Triple Crown attempts since 1978.

I had bought into the "foregone conclusion" theory Dutrow had been preaching in the wake of Big Brown's winning performances in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. I admired the way jockey Kent Desormeaux tried to leave something in the tank while dusting his Preakness foes three weeks earlier. I was only moderately concerned that Big Brown had to miss a few days of training two weeks before the Belmont when one of his brittle feet popped a small quarter crack. The unfortunate withdrawal of Casino Drive virtually assured that Big Brown would become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner.

Or so I thought.

Big Brown never looked entirely comfortable in the early going, yet when Desormeaux began moving his hands on the colt's neck going into the far turn, I still expected Big Brown to overtake the front-running Da' Tara. In a flash, it was clear that wasn't going to happen.

The energy drained from the crowd of 94,476 just as quickly as it had from Big Brown, who faded to last as Da' Tara galloped on to an easy victory.

Big Brown walked off the track apparently uninjured. The damage to the egos of Dutrow and the IEAH partners was far more severe.

"This horse winning the Triple Crown wasn't going to do a damned thing for racing," a friend said while Nick Zito walked his second Belmont Stakes winner down victory lane.

It was the slap of reality I needed. I knew then that I'd fooled myself, falling for the "good of racing" argument that somehow a Triple Crown winner would help a sport that often can't seem to help itself.

Meanwhile, on the victory stand, Zito was talking about the importance of humility and grace in this sometimes humbling game.

It's a lesson Dutrow and the Big Brown team could learn.

Ray Paulick is a Lexington, Ky.-based journalist who served as editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse from 1992-2007. Over the past 25 years he has covered Thoroughbred racing, breeding and sales on six continents and more than a dozen countries and appeared on numerous television and radio news programs offering his expertise on the industry. Contact Ray at raypaulick@gmail.com.