In wake of historic defeat, questions chase Big Brown

June 08, 2008|By RICK MAESE

ELMONT, N.Y. — ELMONT, N.Y.-- --More than 1.2 million thoroughbreds have been bred in North America since we last celebrated a Triple Crown winner.

Those who live for great moments thought we finally had another. Those who consider themselves dreamers hoped we had another. Those who spend their lunch hour at the local track bet that we had another. And those around Big Brown's barn bragged that after 30 long years, we finally had another.

So we showed up at the 140th running of the Belmont Stakes to see the crowning of a new king, eager and curious to watch a mighty horse etch his name alongside those of the all-time greats. But Big Brown went from coronation to humiliation in just a couple of furlongs. His victory was declared a "foregone conclusion" by his connections before the race, but Big Brown instead finished last, pulling up around the final turn.

Somehow - and this is amazing when you think about it - the staggering margin of defeat suffered in the race was in direct proportion to the insufferable level of boasts and bluster that poured from Big Brown's camp these past few weeks.

Yes, there are racing gods - and their sense of humor is apparently equaled by their sense of justice.

We thought the question today would surround Big Brown's place in history; instead, we tackle something much simpler: What exactly happened?

"I don't see a problem," said Rick Dutrow, Big Brown's outspoken trainer, "and I am looking for one."

"I have no idea," said Big Brown's jockey, Kent Desormeaux.

"He just wasn't himself today," said trainer Nick Zito, whose colt Da' Tara went from anonymity to the winner's circle yesterday.

The theories floated all over Belmont Park, catching in the wind like crumpled betting slips. Was it the sweltering heat? The quarter crack? The pole position? The grueling length?

There were no immediate answers and thus no quick conclusions. But I can tell you this: If we're to take anything from Big Brown's big wins and yesterday's big loss - and if we're to take anything from a Triple Crown season that so poetically mixed great triumph with resounding sorrow - there's one question that we had better answer: What effect did steroids have on this horse?

It's highly unusual for a horse trainer to change his routine when his horse runs three races in just five weeks. Dutrow bragged that he is set in his ways, that he is rankled by change, that Big Brown responded perfectly in the Kentucky Derby and then again in the Preakness. So why would he need to change a single thing?

But he did. Before the Preakness, Dutrow admitted to giving his horse the steroid Winstrol. After much media scrutiny, before the Belmont, Dutrow said his horse had missed his monthly injection and would run the 1 1/2 -mile race - the one that would cement Big Brown's legacy - without steroids in his system.

Don't mistake this as a lamentation that an athlete might compete clean, but it deserves further inquiry. On steroids, Big Brown ran like few before him; flowers and plants at Churchill Downs and Pimlico Race Course are still shuddering in his wake. Off steroids, he became the first Triple Crown hopeful to finish last in the Belmont.

In Big Brown's defense, he is hardly the only horse who was aided by drugs and vitamins. He just happens to have one of the few trainers who will admit to it.

To defend the integrity of the sport and to salvage the reputation of the industry, we need to better understand the effects steroids and other drugs have on these horses. Those close to the sport spend too much time tap-dancing around the issue.

Asked whether Big Brown was hindered without the steroids, respected track veterinarian Larry Bramlage said, "I kind of doubt it."

All anyone seems to agree on is that Big Brown had a markedly different race on the final leg of the Triple Crown than he did in the first two. And I can't help but wonder whether the defining moment for him didn't come at the finish line, down the stretch, across the backside or maybe even in the starting gate.

Here, it's not horse vs. horse; it's horse vs. track. And Big Brown was no match yesterday. And he has no place among the greats, which says as much about him as it does those past champions.

"I can't fathom what kind of freaks those 11 Triple Crown winners were," said Desormeaux, who previously missed the Triple Crown when Real Quiet finished second in the Belmont in 1998.

Big Brown was a great racer, and he took the entire industry on an incredible ride. Expectations were amplified by his confident camp, which in turn deepened the disappointment.

He had hoped to join an elite class of champions. Instead, Big Brown joins another group, his last-place finish yesterday making him one of more than 1.2 million since Affirmed nipped Alydar, horses who for one reason or another, fell short of greatness.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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