- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2008

Six months ago, Robert LaPenta was sure he would have a horse entered in the Belmont Stakes. And he was right.

Of course, it wasn’t the horse he envisioned.

At the start of the year, LaPenta and Nick Zito made up the owner/trainer combination of 2-year-old champion War Pass, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner who was installed as the early Kentucky Derby favorite.

At the end of the Triple Crown campaign, War Pass was still on the mend from an injury and the unknown Da’ Tara had delivered LaPenta and Zito a Belmont Stakes victory that stretched the sport’s Triple Crown drought to 31 years.

And in the process, Big Brown became the first horse to finish last in the Belmont after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

“We wish we were here with War Pass, but we hoped Da’ Tara was going to do it for him, and he did it very well,” LaPenta said.

As the longest shot on the board (38-1), Da’ Tara won going wire to wire (in the slowest Belmont time in six years, 2:29.65) and entered himself into the 3-year-old summer picture.

“He’s been one of Nick’s favorite horses right from the very beginning,” LaPenta said. “He’s a late developer, but he’s been getting better and better.”

War Pass was sidelined by a left front ankle fracture sustained in his runner-up finish April 5 in the Wood Memorial. His status already had been diminished by a dreadful seventh-place run in the Tampa Bay Derby a month earlier.

Without War Pass, LaPenta figured his Triple Crown campaign was over since Da’ Tara’s only big-time race was a disaster - ninth in the Florida Derby, beaten 23 1/4 lengths by Big Brown.

But three things told Zito to give Da’ Tara a shot: 1. His fifth-place performance in the Derby Trial on April 26 (a solid step forward after the Florida Derby, Zito said). 2. His second-place run in the Barbaro Stakes on Preakness Day (career-high speed figure). 3. The apparent lack of speed entered in the Belmont Stakes.

“Looking at the past performances and thinking Big Brown didn’t want the lead, I said, ‘I think we’re the only speed. Let’s take a shot,’ ” Zito said.

Da’ Tara was nowhere near the lead in his first matchup against Big Brown, but jockey Alan Garcia forged his ride to the front early in the Belmont, angling over from the fifth starting post. Once Big Brown showed no acceleration and Tale of Ekati faded, Da’ Tara held off the closing Denis of Cork.

Big Brown was eased by jockey Kent Desormeaux exiting the far turn. Big Brown was re-examined Sunday morning and received a clean bill of health.

Michael Iavarone, co-president of IEAH Stables, said Big Brown underwent an endoscopic exam that showed no damage to the lungs. A second look at his healing quarter crack revealed nothing.

“We’re sitting here as confused as anybody,” Iavarone said.

If healthy, Iavarone added, Big Brown will be trained up to the Travers Stakes on Aug. 23 at Saratoga. At a maximum, Big Brown has two races remaining his career - following the Travers would be the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Oct. 25 in southern California. That would be his only chance to face star 4-year old Curlin.

In the Travers, Big Brown likely would face Da’ Tara and Denis of Cork (third in the Derby, second in the Belmont) but not Casino Drive.

The morning-line second choice in the Belmont, Casino Drive was scratched Saturday morning because of a left hind foot bruise. The colt is scheduled to return to Japan on Tuesday, and his connections said he would return to North America only for the Breeders’ Cup.

Judging by Zito’s demeanor Saturday, War Pass isn’t expected to be part of the summer fray, either. That leaves Da’ Tara and Anak Nakal (who finished in a dead-heat for third in the Belmont) to carry Zito’s barn north to upstate New York.

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