- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

ELMONT, N.Y | For the first time in his six-race career, Big Brown became Big Bust.

On horse racing’s biggest stage, on the cusp of a spot in the history books and a mediocre field serving as his competition, Big Brown couldn’t complete the Triple Crown on Saturday, finishing last in the Belmont Stakes, so far out of contention that jockey Kent Desormeaux eased up on his colt with a quarter mile remaining.

Big Brown became the 11th horse since 1979 to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes before losing the mile-and-a-half Belmont. Affirmed in 1978 remains the last Triple Crown champion, the 30-year drought is the longest since Sir Barton won the first Crown in 1919.

Long-shot Da’ Tara won the Belmont at odds of 38-1 by 5- lengths over Denis of Cork. Anak Nakal and Ready’s Echo finished in a dead heat for third place. Winning trainer Nick Zito spoiled Smarty Jones’ quest for the Triple Crown in 2004 with Birdstone.

Big Brown, the 1-4 favorite in front of a record 94,476 crowd and running in brutal 93 degree heat, was pulled up by Desormeaux about 100 yards after the finish line. Moments later, he jumped off the colt and gave him five pats on the ribs.

“I have no idea [what went wrong],” Desormeaux said. “But long before we went into the last turn, I knew I had no horse.”

Big Brown was examined immediately after the race and was found to have no obvious injuries and was being walked around a barn 40 minutes after the race. He missed three days of training early last week because of a quarter crack in his left front hoof but was cleared by veterinarians.

“He might have decided it wasn’t his day and he wasn’t going to try,” on-call veterinarian Dr. Larry Bramlage said. “There wasn’t anything outwardly apparently wrong with him.”

Forty minutes after the race, Big Brown was being walked around a barn as trainer Rick Dutrow, Jr. - his blue dress shirt long ago drenched in sweat watched.

Partly because his stallion rights have been sold for a reported $50 million and partly because he might have sustained an internal injury, it’s possible Big Brown will never race again. His owners said during the week he would definitely be retired to stud after his 3-year-old campaign.

Dutrow, who said victory was a “foregone conclusion” earlier last week and an hour before the race guaranteed a win, high-tailed it back to the barn with Big Brown. The colt’s ownership group also disappeared.

Big Brown was calm before the race. He left the paddock about 6:15 p.m. and led the field onto the track at 6:17 p.m. to a loud but not rousing applause. While several competitors … including the eventual winner Da’ Tara - sweated noticeably, Big Brown calmly warmed up and entered the starting gate at 6:31 p.m.

Moments later, though, entering the first turn, Big Brown encountered trouble. Instead of being his normally relaxed self, he began jerking his head and fighting Desormeaux.

“He was keen to go early,” Desormeaux said.

Big Brown sat third for the first half of the race but as the front four horses circled the second turn, Desormeaux asked and Big Brown failed to deliver, losing ground to Da’ Tara. Big Brown was then being passed by four horses in a quick sequence. At the top of the stretch, Desormeaux steered Big Brown way outside and he galloped the final quarter-mile.

Many of the horses who have recently lost the Belmont had legitimate excuses when it came to their competition. They were actually competitive.

On paper, Big Brown’s rivals had ordinary resumes. The most respected contender was going to be Casino Drive, but a hoof bruise forced his removal from the field at 7 a.m. Saturday.

Da’ Tara had faced Big Brown only once- and lost by 23 lengths in the Florida Derby. But he led wire to wire, impressively pulling away from Big Brown.

The fact that any horse can get into Triple Crown-winning position is becoming a bigger surprise each year.

Old-time horsemen claim probably accurately that the Triple Crown drought is a product of different breeding practices. In the last 25 years, speed as a 3-year-old has taken precedent. Going fast and going to the winner’s circle early in a career increases a horse’s value.

Steve Cauthen piloted Affirmed in 1978 and is now a breeder in Kentucky. He said breeders and owners are still focused on winning but admits the pressure has increased for horses to be fast as 2-year-olds.

“Everybody wants their cake, and they want to eat it, too,” he said. “They want their 2-year-olds ready to run in the earliest races. And then they want them to go ahead and develop into campaigners that can run a mile and a mile-and-a-quarter as 3- and 4-year-olds.”

Big Brown wasn’t on anybody’s Kentucky Derby radar at the beginning of the year. But he rolled to impressive wins in each of his four 2008 starts entering the Belmont.

But as horses like Real Quiet and Silver Charm, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones found out, the Belmont Stakes is an entirely different challenge. And like the 10 horses before him, Big Brown was unable to complete the Triple Crown sweep.

“I salute Big Brown,” Zito said. “He’s still a champion. He wasn’t himself today and we took advantage of it.”

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