Millions of TV viewers and a live crowd of 94,476 people turned their eyes to the Belmont Stakes to witness history on June 7, 2008. What they got was certainly history, though not in the form anyone expected; for what occurred in Elmont, New York on that day was one of the biggest upsets in American horse racing.
Everything that could have gone wrong for the Triple Crown hopeful, Big Brown, popped off like a perpetual minefield. It started weeks before the final test, when a quarter crack opened in his left fore hoof and put him out of training for three days. The Belmont, they say, is a race you cannot train for—the only way to prepare is to be diligent, keeping the horse tight and fit. They say if Big Brown had won the Belmont, it would have been nothing short of a miracle for as little preparation as he had for the last jewel of the Triple Crown. The quarter crack itself turned out to be a non-issue, but the lack of workouts as a result of it became the first in a string of the champ’s ultimate undoing.
The day of the Belmont, Big Brown was noticeably rank, the opposite of the horse’s temperament. After being put in the detention barn before the race, the colt began to buck and kick for several minutes—not as bad as some of the other horses, and usually not a concern; but when you consider Big Brown had been going to his workouts the weeks prior acting rank and overzealous, this could have been the warning that all was not right. He had not been given the blow-out before the Belmont like in the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby—he had too much energy to be the cool, collected colt of norm. And so, what jockey Kent Desormeaux would be given control of was akin to a runaway train, and ultimately, this is how the jockey would ride him.
As they loaded the colt into the gate, temperatures at Belmont sat at a stifling 93 degrees. The track had a water shortage—not only did ladies have to resort to using the men’s restrooms for lack of water, but the track did not get its customary watering before the race. The Big Sandy had reverted to powder, and so the Belmont track wasn’t exactly the same as it had been for previous winners Rags to Riches, Empire Maker and Jazil.
Big Brown was in post position number one, right along the rail. And when the gates flew open, the colt was so keen to burst into action, his back legs slipped leaving the starting gate and he was forced to scramble to make up ground. Five powerful lunges forward, the colt nervously eyed a starter on the track, who was standing inches from his path. A starter regularly stands by the side of the rail at the beginning of the Belmont, but never should they be so far down the track as to distract the horses. Like the umbrella man in front of the famed grassy knoll, the starter was a sign that something was off.
Desormeaux immediately cut Big Brown to the middle of the field to, assumingly, rest him on the outside. Then the jockey went on to barge through more of the horses, eventually running up on Tale of Ekati, who came out of the race with a 3-inch gash in his hind leg. Big Brown was ranker than he’d ever been in a race, the whites of his eyes flashing as he pleaded with Desormeaux to be let to the front. Had he been without a jockey that day, Big Brown probably could’ve won the Belmont all on his own. The horse knew what was best for him that day, and his failure to run his race was an outright tragedy.
The preposterousness continued on the backstretch, where Desormeaux kept Big Brown seven-wide as the other horses refused to budge an inch. The Belmont is not the type of race that’s won by running wide, yet he didn’t think to pull back his colt like in the Preakness to settle him off the front-runners. It was then, as Brownie struggled to find a sitting place on the backstretch, that I knew he was finished.
By the time Desormeaux found a comfortable spot for his mount, Big Brown was completely burned out. Spent from zig-zagging through the other horses, bullying his way between them, and being held back from his desire to run, Brownie’s button shut off. It was if he knew as well as the historians this was no way to win the longest race in the Triple Crown. But then, the horse was subjected to the worst embarrassment of all—in the middle of the final turn, as other horses began to pass him, Desormeaux threw in the towel and began to pull him up.
To everyone watching that race, echoes of Barbaro and Charismatic began to haunt the memory. The champ being pulled up in the middle of the race could only mean one thing—Big Brown was injured. As Desormeaux rode Big Brown to the outside rail, away from the rest of the horses, the inevitable lump crawled into the throats of the onlookers. This couldn’t be happening, not again, not him. The people watching from home couldn’t see the status of the big bay colt as the field went on without him—front runner Da’ Tara opening up a five-length lead on the rest of the horses. Nobody cared who was winning now.
At the racetrack, the fans began to boo. Big Brown fought against the bit, his head wheeled back, his legs reaching, “Let me run!” But his jockey would have none of it and joined a steward to lope the champ across the wire well after the rest of the horses had finished.
And in the most shocking twist to the race’s finale, it was evident as Desormeaux dismounted without checking the horse for soundness that there was nothing wrong with Big Brown. He had been pulled up, against racing regulations, for no reason, except that he was likely to be out of the money for the first time in his life. Big Brown had been forced into last position, a humiliating twist to the undefeated colt’s record he did not earn on his own.
The grandstands of Belmont were shocked into a dull murmur. The only people cheering were the connections of winner Da’ Tara, Nick Zito and company, who won with the horse nobody expected. Going off at odds of 38-1, Da’ Tara became one of the biggest longshots ever to win the Belmont Stakes.
Big Brown was whisked away to his barn by his throng of disciples. His exercise rider, Michelle Nevin, put a hand on his shoulder as he walked quickly out of the limelight. The horse seemed in shock at his own comeuppance, at being denied his urge to run. His anger was evident in the constant swishing of his tail. He knew he did not deserve this.
His dazed trainer, Rick Dutrow, followed him back to the barn with Big Brown’s entourage like bodyguards protecting their asset from the paparazzi. The horse that had been so brilliantly unbeaten in six starts and syndicated for over $50 million dollars; he had been dealt a hand perhaps only his boasters deserved: Desormeaux, who said he couldn’t see how his horse could ever get beaten; Dutrow, who, with his runaway mouth, said the Belmont was a “foregone conclusion.” Later that afternoon, Iavarone threw his arms around the colt’s neck and stood there in a long embrace. It’s over. After months of preparation, and weeks of grueling races, the one shot for immortality is gone.
In the cruelest form of irony, the noble horse once again paid for the sins of his connections. And once again, we are denied a Triple Crown winner.
Churchill Downs Welcomes Dubai World Cup Winner in $1 Million Stephen Foster
The recently crowned “best horse in the world” has returned to the USA after winning the world’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup. World domination continues in the recently richer Stephen Foster Handicap (Gr. I) at Churchill Downs this Saturday, which raised its purse from $750,000 to $1 million to lure the big chestnut. Curlin currently stands as the third richest race horse of all time, and with the Breeder’s Cup potentially in his sights, seeks to beat Cigar’s all-time record of $9,999,815.
History shows that Dubai World Cup winners have a more difficult time bouncing back from the taxing race, but trainer Steve Asmussen thinks Curlin is eager to return to racing. And if his record-setting victory margin of 7 ® lengths in the Cup is any indication, Curlin will likely make ponies of the rest of the field. However, Asmussen is less than thrilled about Curlin’s weight assignment of 128 pounds—ten pounds higher than the next-highest horse, Einstein. Being the easy winner of the Breeder’s Cup Classic and the richest race in the world seems to have at least one pitfall—you simply look too good to race against anyone else on even terms.
Don’t give up hope for the potential match-up between Big Brown and Curlin. Since Big Brown didn’t pick up any injuries in his Belmont bid, his racing career looks likely to continue until at least the year’s end, where a race against Curlin seems enticingly imminent.
Racing on the undercard of the Stephen Foster are Kentucky Derby vets Pyro, Visionaire, and Recapturetheglory in the Grade III Northern Dancer Stakes. There is no overwhelming favorite in the race, and promising competitors Unbridled Vicar and Tiz Now Tiz Then are looking to prove themselves against the former Grade I contenders. Can the once Derby favorite, Pyro, return to his glory days of the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby?
As Churchill Downs is only a four-hour drive away from C-U, and admission is only $3, can you say “road trip?”