The burning image that I will take with me, from the Palm Meadows training center in March all the way to Section 3V in the Belmont Park grandstand on a steamy afternoon at Belmont Park on the first Saturday in June, is this:
My best girl, regaled in brown halter top and Big Brown cap, was standing on her seat as Da’ Tara, shadowed closely by Tale Of Ekati and Big Brown, curled into the turn leaving the half-mile pole.
But arm-pumping encouragement suddenly turned into mouth-agape shock: Big Brown was being eased.
For the love of the game, I want to celebrate a training masterpiece by Nick Zito at Belmont Park. And since it’s the second time he’s done this to a Triple Crown hopeful in the Belmont Stakes, I’m assuming he didn’t make it to the Hall on Union Avenue by accident.
There was no quit in Da’ Tara on Saturday, and no fuel in the tank of Big Brown. Zito’s other Belmont entrant, Anak Nakal, finished third. Denis Of Cork, third in the Derby, ran on very well for second in the late stages, but was never a serious threat.
I want to celebrate it all, but the big winners at Belmont Park yesterday were not the people snapping up Big Brown memorabilia.
But had the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals opened a concession, they’d have been sold out before the completion of the late double.
Kent Desormeaux, chased by media all the way back to the jock’s room after the race, said it best: “I saved a horse today.”
Whatever that tells you, you really don’t want to know.
War Pass, the winter book Kentucky Derby favorite forced to the sidelines after his courageous placing in the Wood Memorial, and Cool Coal Man, and Stevil, and Cold Play and now Da’ Tara. So who gets demoted to owner Bob LaPenta’s fifth string this time?
Funny game, horse racing, and not ha-ha funny.
We won’t know what happened to the favorite until the tests are done, all the tests. Dr. Larry Bramlage, who gets a lot more face time on racing telecasts than anyone wants to see, could only guess.
The only thing that made sense to him was that it wasn’t Winstrol-off. “I doubt that [the withdrawal of anabolic steroids] that’s the answer,” said Bramlage. “That keeps him eating, keeps him happy. It might require [extensive] testing, bone scans, MRIs…”
“The only thing I know to do is wait and see how things go,” said the main who knows him best, trainer Rick Dutrow. “I don’t know what else to do to see if anything else is wrong. The horse kind of looks like he’s fine to me.”
Anyone who loves these marvelous creatures are happy to hear that. It’s the bettors who are wondering what window they take that report to. Co-mingled wagering on Big Brown across-the-board nearly reached $10-million, at $9,971,627, according to NYRA statistics, exluding multi-millions more in exotic wagers.
They put their faith not only in Big Brown but in a forthcoming Dutrow and Ian McKinlay, widely regarded as the preeminent authority on patching quarter cracks.
Big Brown’s hoof issues were nothing compared to those of Touch Gold, and he won the Belmont in a Triple Crown upset over Silver Charm.
“On a scale of one to 10, [Touch Gold’s] problems were a 10,” said McKinlay when the hoof issues first surfaced shortly after Big Brown’s triumphant return from Baltimore.
But back at the barn an hour after Big Brown finished ninth of nine,” Dutrow was saying he “really didn’t know how to feel, but the horse looks like he’s fine. Right now we’re trying to figure out what happened in the race.”
Zito was gracious in victory. “The champ, Big Brown, didn’t run his race today. He wasn’t himself. Da Tara was himself.”
Da Tara was himself, indeed, taking a 140-year-old racing classic for his second lifetime victory. Rated along beautifully in front by budding riding star Alan Garcia, he virtually 12-clipped his field throughout, taking a bit longer in that uncharted final quarter of a mile, to reach the finish line in an ordinary 2:29.65, paying $79 straight.
And then the winning Hall of Fame trainer saw the victory in more philosophical terms: “That’s the game,” said Zito. “You keep trying.”
Even when it rips your guts out.