06/08/2008 2:05PM



Big Brown would have won the Belmont and the Triple Crown yesterday if he'd run his usual race, but he obviously didn't. His connections remained puzzled and "perplexed" Sunday morning, but something clearly went terribly wrong after a mile. Big Brown was unresponsive when asked to make his usual move and in enough distress to be pulled up shortly thereafter.

This was not a Crown-busting Belmont where a worthy rival close in ability to the favorite stepped up his game and ran the better race, a la Easy Goer, Touch Gold, Victory Gallop or Empire Maker. Big Brown effectively didn't show up. Da' Tara reeled off progressively slower front-running fractions, and was perfectly catchable by horses of high quality but there weren't any still running in the stretch. The winner's 2:29.65 for 12 furlongs earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 99, the lowest Belmont in the 20 years since the Beyers have been published, and one could argue that even a 99 was slightly generous.

Big Brown's performance was a bit reminiscent of War Pass's last-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby just three months ago, where some argued he had been exposed as a pretender, others said there had to be a health-related explanation, and the whole thing remains a mystery, as it often does when a good horse runs a horrifically bad race. That race also came to mind since War Pass sure began the year as a likelier candidate than Da' Tara to put owner Bob LaPenta and trainer Nick Zito into the winner's circle after a Triple Crown race this year.

Two other races came to mind after the Belmont, ones involving previous skirmishes between the winning and losing connections. In the 2005 Woodward, Rick Dutrow ran two overmatched sprinters at Zito's Commentator to soften him up for Saint Liam. In the Wood Memorial two months ago, IEAH entered the rabbit Inner Light to wear down War Pass early for the benefit of their Court Vision. Both times it "worked" insofar as compromising Zito's chances. Zito never complained publicly about either incident, and I'm not saying he entered D'Tara and Anak Nakal in retribution, or instructed their riders to surround Big Brown on the first turn, but there was at least a pinch of karma involved in the way it all worked out.

I'm not going to try to pretend I liked Da' Tara, who was not one of the four alternatives to Big Brown I had gotten myself alive to in the pick-four for a small score. The only retrospective self-flagellation I'll indulge in was being too quick to dismiss his effort in the Barbaro Stakes on the Preakness undercard, where he lost a photo to Roman Emperor in the final strides. The time of that race (1:42.10 for a mile and a sixteenth) was in the same ballpark as Big Brown's 1:54.80 in the Preakness if you took it at face value instead of thinking the track slowed down or that Big Brown could have run a lot faster had he been extended rather than geared down late.

I doubt we'll ever get a definitive explanation for what happened to Big Brown in the Belmont. Romantics will say that the deities who guard the pantheon of greatness kept out a horse who wasn't The Anointed One, a horse who wasn't quite as fast or accomplished or deserving as the three great ones who are our only Triple Crown winners in the last 60 years. Horseplayers of a more cynical bent will simply shrug and say that heavy favorites often lose, and that this was simply the 11th straight Derby-Preakness winner to come up short in the Belmont.

---I'm pretty sure there's a $1.18 million pick-six carryover awaiting us at Belmont when racing resumes Wednesday. For whatever reason -- confusion because of the $1 million guarantee yesterday? -- Equibase did not report the pick-six pool or a carryover amount, so everyone's charts show only a 5-of-6 payoff of $1,106, and NYRA does not have its usual Carryover banner on its homepage. [Update: Ah, there it is.] I remember getting one brief glance at posted pick-six probables, and my memory is that the 2,6 and 8 -- Guadalcanal, Da' Tara and Anak Nakal -- were the only uncovered horses.

---Sorry about the failed iPhone-blogging experiment yesterday. I spent the first four races trying to make it work, but slow servers and intermittent wi-fi outages just made it impossible. Tempting as it was to duck out of the heat and into an air-conditioned pressbox, I was stubbornly determined to soak up the day in the stands, so I spent the afternoon in the great outdoors, perspiring, wagering and participating in the spontaneous conversion of men's rooms into unisex facilities amid water and plumbing outages.

It felt more like an oppressive day at Saratoga than a Belmont Day, though decidedly less crowded than the Smarty Jones and Funny Cide years. The crowd count of 94,476 and commingled handle of about $99 million were both 15 to 20 percent lower than the 2004 record numbers, though up sharply from 2007, when there was no Triple Crown on the line.

There was plenty of other good racing on the Saturday card, and I'll compose some thoughts on it tomorrow after spending some time with the charts and replays.