Sorry Big Brown; we shed no tears for cheaters

Jun 10, 2008 7:02 PM

Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

It is unusual to be fulfilled and disappointed at the same time, although it happens, I am told, with love affairs.

My feelings about Big Brown were not a love affair. As voiced here last week, I was rooting for Casino Drive to beat him, primarily because of the contrasting connections of the two horses: guys in white hats going against guys who have worn black in the past.

Peter Thomas Fornatale, who has written books on handicapping horse racing, shared my sentiments when he wrote, in an opinion piece that the New York Times headlined, "If Big Brown Wins, Racing Loses"; that rooting for the owners of Big Brown "would be validating a ‘win at any price’ mentality."

The sport’s court jester Rick Dutrow, who trains Big Brown, has a racing rap sheet with 72 penalties, 13 of them relating to drugs. Fornatale wrote, "When a guy like this wins racing’s most prestigious prize, what message does that send to everyone else involved in the sport? It tells owners that they can win by entrusting their horses to a trainer known for bending the rules."

And they do.

That reasoning, plus a strong personal liking for trainer Nick Zito, who trained the Belmont winner at 38-to-1, made the Belmont fulfilling.

That was more than offset by the depressing news on Belmont morning that Casino Drive had suffered a hoof bruise and was scratched from the race. As the Belmont turned out, he probably would have breezed. We may never know. And then again, we may.

Casino Drive has gone back to Japan, but his owner, Hidetoshi Yamamoto, must be desperately disappointed at the turn of events. He could send his star back to Saratoga in August for the Travers, or to Santa Anita in the fall for the Breeders’ Cup

Presuming that no one got to Big Brown, and that he was a sick horse but not a lame one on Belmont Day, he now could remain on track to seek Horse of the Year honors, instead of being retired immediately.

Now tarnished, the silver needs to be shined, and the no longer undefeated champion simply joins a list of other exceptional horses that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and then came up short in the mile and a half Belmont. Breeders may agree to risk that asterisk by seeking future glory in the Travers or Breeders’ Cup.

Off the hook, in any event, is Suffolk Downs in Boston, trying to drag itself up from the dregs under new ownership. It announced before the Belmont it would offer a $5 million purse for its Massachusetts Handicap if both Big Brown and last year’s Horse of the Year Curlin ran in it, with a $1 million "participation bonus" to both. A caveat announced that if either horse lost a race between last week and the Sept.20 MassCap, the purse would drop to $3 million, with a $500,000 bonus to both horses. Suffolk is off the big hook, but still faces the smaller one, plus getting a half million bucks or so in free publicity.

There was an interesting twist in the news last week buried in the billion words on Big Brown and the Belmont.

A report in the New York Daily News said the Hooters restaurant chain was going to sponsor Big Brown along with UPS, and that jockey Kent Desormeaux would wear a Hooters logo on his pants in the race. I did not see the patch, and can only assume Hooters did not get in his pants, or on them. Hooters also said it would have a small squadron of its tightly outfitted and short-skirted greeters on hand in the winner’s circle.

ABC, which televised what amounted to a documentary on Big Brown while also presumably having to do a major late cut on a section they must have prepared on Casino Drive, was careful to make sure owner Michael Iavarone was not in focus, nor the Hooter girls. I’m not sure, but when someone called to Nick Zito and he stepped forward from the interview scene to hear the caller, I thought I saw a fleeting glimpse of a pair of legs and the bottom half of a short skirt disappear from the frame. ABC does not give free and highly expensive airtime on a telecast that is seen worldwide by tens of millions.

I can’t believe Belmont changed its mind to bust the busty promo. Probably just wishful thinking on my part.