ELMONT, N.Y. -- The morning after Big Brown's stunning last-place finish in the Belmont Stakes, his trainer didn't show at the colt's barn, so it was left to others to try to explain why the overwhelming favorite was a flop.
And at least a couple of horsemen offered a guess that perhaps Big Brown had breathing problems caused by a displaced palate.
Dr. Nick Meittinis, owner of the Maryland Veterinary Group, which cares for horses stabled at Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park and the Bowie Training Center, said yesterday: "I don't think we'll ever know what happened in that race. But going down the front stretch, the horse wanted to go to the front, and he was running off when Kent [Desormeaux, his jockey] had to stand up in his irons to pull him up. When you have to grab a horse real hard and pull his head up like that, that's when the displacement can happen."
When it does happen, Meittinis said, "a horse can continue on cruise control, but when asked to run [hard] he can't get enough air."
Trainer Nick Zito, whose Da' Tara won the Belmont by 5 1/4 lengths, agreed with Meittinis' suggestion.
"He's a young horse. He only trained once since the Derby," Zito said. "It was very hot Saturday. He had some vigorous moves early, and he could have just gotten tired. But there is usually a physical reason for it."
Desormeaux said after the race he did not know what went wrong.
Big Brown was calm yesterday, going through his usual morning routine, having a bath in the warm sunshine, playing with the lead being held by his exercise rider, Michelle Nevin.
The horse seemed unaware of the mystery surrounding his performance Saturday, when he failed to respond to the urging of Desormeaux, was eased up and finished last in the 1 1/2 -mile race he was expected to dominate.
Instead of becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years, he became the first Triple Crown threat with an undefeated record (5-0) to finish last.
Yesterday morning, as questions mounted - why did he fail to run and what impact did possibly not getting his usual steroids since mid-April have on him? - Dutrow did not appear before the media.
Dutrow said immediately after the race, "I have no idea," why Big Brown didn't perform in his usual dominating manner.
"I just don't see anything wrong," Dutrow said. "Because of that I will scope him as a precaution because I don't know what else to do, but he isn't even coughing."
The trainer added that the horse will have a full veterinary examination to find the reason for his poor showing.
Dutrow said Thursday that he had not given Big Brown his usual dose of steroids since mid-April, and on the advice of his friend, trainer Bobby Frankel, he had even stopped giving Big Brown his vitamins last week.
"I want to do what's best for the horse," Dutrow said. "I just don't want to mess him up."
Asked whether steroid withdrawal could account for Big Brown's lack of run Saturday, Dr. Larry Bramlage, a partner in Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky., and the on-call vet at the Belmont Stakes, said he didn't think so.
"The anabolic steroids keep him eating, keep him happy and keep him aggressive," Bramlage said. "All of which he showed all week long."
Certainly, Big Brown was an aggressive horse before and early in the race.
ESPN had footage of him bucking and playing in the Detention Barn before going to the paddock, and he was showing more than a little interest in the track pony before being loaded into the starting gate.
"He was fresh," Desormeaux said.
Big Brown appeared raring to go, so much so that Desormeaux had to pull him up twice, once entering the first turn and once as they were heading for the backstretch, as Big Brown fought his way through traffic to reach the perfect, third-place running position on the outside.
"But when I asked him to go," Desormeaux said, "I had no horse."
Meittinis, who was not involved in Big Brown's care, said there could be countless reasons a horse might fail to run the way Big Brown failed to run. Besides a palate problem, a horse could be bleeding or have a low-grade lung infection or an allergy, which shows no visible signs.
"Like people," Meittinis said, "horses don't know that they're going to be sick the day before they get sick."