ELMONT, NY -- After weeks of speculation and thousands of man-hours of preparation, the 140th running of the Belmont Stakes went off with just one hitch on Saturday -- in the step of favored horse Big Brown.
Instead of the coronation of a racing legend, the crowd of 94,476 spectators was treated to a win by the longest of long shots, Da' Tara, trained by Nick Zito. Da' Tara left the post with the worst odds of any horse in the field, 39-1. His victory should have been the type of underdog story that ramped up an already cacophonous din. But afterwards, the focus was squarely on Big Brown.
The buildup to the race billed Big Brown as a the next great race horse, one who had crafted a reputation of dominance during convincing wins at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The three-year-old thoroughbred was trying to become only the 12th Triple Crown winner in more than 125 years, the first since Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978.
The colt began the race in the inside position and ran with the pack for most of the trip around the 1 1/2 mile oval. But he faded around the last turn and was pulled up by jockey Kent Desormeaux, failing to finish the race. Instead of becoming the first Triple Crown winner of the new millenium, Big Brown became the first-ever Triple Crown hopeful to finish in last place.
"I had no horse," Desormeaux said after the race. "He was empty. He didn't have anything left. There's no popped tires. He's just out of gas."
"When he turned for home," Big Brown's trainer Rick Dutrow said, "something wasn't right."
Big Brown's struggles became all the more puzzling after a thorough physical revealed that the horse was healthy.
"He looked fine," said Dr. Larry Bramlage, who examined Big Brown following the race. "All I saw was when Desormeaux started to slow him down. The first thing you expected is something is wrong. He was not lame when he stopped here in front of the stands."
Big Brown suffered a quarter crack in his left front hoof during training, but the injury was patched on Monday. A cracked hoof is a common injury among horses and shouldn't have been debilitating. Still, the lasting image of the Belmont Stakes was of Big Brown slowing to a stop as eight other horses sped away, including Denis of Cork, who finished the race second, and third-place-finisher Anak Nakal.
Casino Drive, the horse seen as the most capable challenger to Big Brown, was scratched Saturday morning because of a bruised left hind hoof. The Japanese colt was supposed to provide the best challenge to Big Brown's Triple Crown bid. Instead, he spent the race in a stable at Belmont, a forgotten footnote.
With Casino Drive out of the way, the scene was set for Big Brown to sprint into the proverbial sunset as the winner, one who would demand stud fees approaching $50 million. Instead, Big Brown broke down.
Like his horse, Dutrow appeared to have run out of gas following the race. The trainer assumed the role of promoter in the weeks leading up to the Belmont, fueling the hype with bold predictions and declarations of his horse's superiority. The veteran trainer seemed to be impersonating a boxing promoter like Don King or Bundini Brown.
"These horses just cannot run with Big Brown," Dutrow told reporters on May 29. "We're sitting in an unbelievable spot. We know we have the best horse in the race."
But Dutrow's horse didn't win. The final image of the 140th running of the Belmont Stakes wasn't one of Zito celebrating with his newest prized pupil. It was of a crestfallen Dutrow dutifully answering questions about why his horse came up short, struggling to find the right words. In the end, the brash trainer who seemed to have an answer to every question was stumped.