Saturday, June 7, 2008


HORSE RACING needed a hero. Instead, it ended up with an inquest.

Big Brown, sent off a 1-4 favorite to become the 12th winner of the American Triple Crown and first for 30 years, once again proved there is no such thing as a “certainty” as jockey Kent Desormeaux was forced to pull up the horse before the home stretch.

Time may tell exactly what caused Big Brown to become Big Flop. Was it his cracked hoof? The absence of steroids in his system? The oppressive heat and humidity on New York’s Long Island? Or perhaps something more sinister?

The conspiracy theorists will no doubt have a field day. Big Brown is the 11th horse to have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown only to fail in the Belmont since Affirmed beat Alydar in the race in 1978.

From the moment the gates opened, the omens were not good. The striking, three-year-old bay colt failed to settle, as he had done in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

The writing was on the wall long before the field, reduced to nine by the morning withdrawal of Casino Drive – reckoned to be the only conceivable danger to Big Brown – turned into the straight. “He was empty. He didn’t have anything left,” said Desormeaux, who wisely decided to ease his mount down to a trot.

One man’s misfortune is another man’s gain and Alan Garcia, a master at riding a horse from the front, kicked at just the right time on the rank outsider Da’Tara, who started at odds of 38-1.

But, for once, this race wasn’t about the winner. It was about the supposed “good thing” who not only lost his unbeaten record but, to all intents and purposes, failed to complete the course.

Sweat-smothered trainer Rick Dutrow Jr was too upset to attempt to offer any excuses. While Dutrow could perhaps be accused of over-confidence, no one expected the Belmont to pan out the way it did.

The public, particularly those who backed Big Brown at prohibitive odds, deserve an explanation. The crowds turned out in their thousands to witness the coronation of the king. Instead, they were stunned into silence.

Riding on the back of Barbaro’s ultimately fatal injury in the Preakness in 2006, and the death of the filly Eight Belles after finishing second to Big Brown at Churchill Downs earlier this year, this is another bad news story racing could well do without.

How can we have any confidence in a sport when, for no apparent reason, the red-hot favorite trails in last? Shocks happen, short shots get turned over regularly. That’s why you never see a poor bookie.

The Triple Crown, three tough races over a variety distances in the space of just five weeks, is one of the toughest prizes to achieve in sports.

But the fact remains that Big Brown and his supporters were never in with a chance. The horse's abject failure casts another huge shadow over the supposed “Sport of Kings.”

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