Big Brown's Belmont shocker still puzzling to Bailey

Jun 17, 2008 7:06 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden | Big Brownís defeat in the Belmont Stakes that prevented him from becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years can best be described by a catch phrase from the Best Picture of 1998, "Shakespeare in Love" Ė "Itís a mystery."

Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, who performed flawlessly when Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness by a combined margin of 10 lengths, was thrown under the bus by the coltís trainer, Rick Dutrow Jr., after Big Brown passed post-race examinations with flying colors (the duo has since kissed and made up, with Dutrow saying Desormeaux would retain the mount in Big Brownís next race).

"I donít want to hurt anyone, especially Kent," Dutrow told Associated Press last Tuesday at his barn at Aqueduct. "But I still donít understand what happened. I donít see the horse with a problem, so I have to direct my attention toward the ride. Thatís all I can come up with."

Perhaps Dutrow should have reevaluated the coltís pre-Belmont conditioning regimen, because despite the trainerís claim to the contrary, the prevailing theory among racing insiders is that Big Brown was under-trained due to a quarter crack that allowed only one five-furlong breeze from the Preakness to the Belmont, an interval of three weeks. Horses in training normally work about once a week.

"I had no horse. He was empty," Desormeaux said after the race.

"I still donít know," said Jerry Bailey, a seven-time Eclipse Award winner who now presents his spot-on expertise for ABC-TV, which telecast the Belmont Stakes. "I donít think anybody does. Was the first turn kind of a mess? Yeah, it was. Iím sure that Kent didnít get through that as smoothly as he would have liked. But come on; Big Brown is a great horse. Heís supposed to overcome that." Bailey did just that when he won the 2003 Belmont Stakes from the No. 1 post position aboard Empire Maker.

Big Brown was jostled a bit into the first turn, but by the time he reached the backstretch, he was in the same position he was in the Preakness, third and clear on the outside. But when Desormeaux called on him leaving the far turn, as Kent said after the race, he had "no horse."

Thatís how Bailey called it on ABC when he exonerated Desormeaux, saying he did the right thing in easing Big Brown through the stretch and not persevering or abusing the colt when obviously beaten for any portion of the purse money, which was awarded the first five finishers. Whether it was from being choked down early or being short on training, Big Brown was one tired caballo.

"Thatís exactly, right," Bailey confirmed in our telephone interview last week. "My point is, whatever happened on the first turn, itís hard to make a definite case that it cost him the race. If it did, and if heís that fragile, then heís not a great horse.

"Sure, Kent could have been a little smoother, and in hindsight, should he have let him go to the lead? Iím not sure. If he does that, then he sets himself up to be the target of two or three different runs by both Daí Tara and Tale of Ekati, so itís not a slam dunk that going to the lead would have worked, either.

"I think Kent could have been a little smoother easing the horse up. He was right to stop riding him, because I do believe he was finished Ö but those are decisions made in the heat of the moment and Iím not going to second-guess the jock for that. ItĎs a tough call, because Iím positive Kent had it in his mind that if he did go to the lead, he would set himself up to be a target, which is fine, as long as the pace is controlled. I donít think he anticipated Big Brown fighting him as much as he did when he tried to get out (for clear sailing into the first turn).

"I made a point in my broadcast to say, ĎThis is where I think heíll be,í because I did think he would ease him back, based upon talking to Kent, and I showed the 2003 Belmont, which Empire Maker won from the No. 1 post position, and he was the last one to do it from there. Thatís exactly what I did. I let the speed go and wiggled my way out, but it went a lot smoother for me than it did for Kent. Iím sure he didnít anticipate that kind of a struggle from Big Brown to make that maneuver."

Jockey agent par excellence Ron Anderson, who represented Bailey when he won the Belmont on Empire Maker and who currently calls the shots for national money leader Garrett Gomez, was reluctant to point fingers at Desormeaux.

"But thatís kind of where itís going," said Las Vegas native Anderson. "There are a lot of circumstances, and I donít have a complete feel for it because I wasnít directly involved, but itís too bad for everybody. Big Brown could have been the right horse; it just didnít work out.

"When you win the Derby and Preakness as easy as he won, the trainer, the jockey, the owners and everybody feels like theyíre bulletproof. But to come on that race track on that day, everything has to go right. Itís a mile and a half and a long, grueling race and everything has to fall in line, and I donít know that everything did, including the ride and everything else. Big Brown wasnít exactly primed for the race, and it all contributed to his running the way he did. Itís too bad."

So donít hold your breath before this conflict ends. Obama could name Rush Limbaugh as his running mate before it does.

The homestretch

Despite being boxed in on the rail till the quarter pole, jockey Robby Albarado exuded confidence and patience aboard Horse of the Year Curlin in the Stephen Foster. When Albarado found a seam entering the stretch and let Curlin loose, he won handily, despite carrying 128 pounds.

If they make it to the Breedersí Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Oct. 25, make Curlin 4-5 and Big Brown 3-1. As far as Curlin being called one of the greatest of all time, remember, he was beaten by a filly.

ē Bailey said he was scheduled to leave shortly for Saratoga, where he will be based all summer for gigs with ESPN and ABC.

ē I wonder how much Charles Barkley lost on the Lakers.