06/12/2008 12:00AM

Armchair jockeys are off base


NEW YORK - Of the dozens of reasons being proposed to explain Big Brown's performance in the Belmont Stakes, the consensus choice seems to be that Kent Desormeaux's ride cost the colt the race and the Triple Crown. We're all just guessing until they teach Big Brown to talk, but after many viewings of the pan and head-on replays of the race, I just don't buy that The Jockey Did It.

Everyone seems to think that Big Brown had a nightmarish trip for the first mile of the Belmont that was so rocky and indecisive that the colt surrendered in frustration or protest of his handling. The ride was not a thing of beauty, but to me it had less in common with the legitimately brutal trips that can keep the best horse from winning than with his trip in the Preakness - which unfolded with almost eerie similarity, but little criticism given the different outcome.

It's easy to say in retrospect that Big Brown "shoulda been" gunned to a clear early lead, but that wasn't going to happen with Da' Tara committed to setting the pace at any cost, nor would such a change of tactics have made any sense after the colt won both the Derby and Preakness so easily by being deliberately kept off the early lead. People are complaining that Big Brown was restrained and wrangled back early in the Belmont, but this is exactly what was done in his two previous races, especially the Preakness.

Big Brown didn't have the rail at Pimlico, but that's where he ended up after he broke from inside all the other speed in the race. He wasn't gunned to the front but was wrestled back as hard as he was at any point in the Belmont in order to get his preferred outside stalking position down the backstretch. There was some steadying both times, but Desormeaux got the colt exactly where he wanted him in each case, without perfect grace but also without enough trauma to compromise the colt's subsequent performance.

When the field straightened away into the backstretch in the Belmont, Big Brown was just where anyone could have wanted him, a close third and to the outside of Da' Tara and Tale of Ekati. He was running smoothly, ears up and under a good hold. The moment of truth came at the same point in both races, heading into the stretch turn. In the Preakness, he sailed right past Gayego and Riley Tucker, but in the Belmont he simply had nothing. Desormeaux encouraged him to go, and he couldn't even get on even terms with a tired Tale of Ekati. The rider encouraged him again and got nothing again. Then as four or five more horses ran past him on his inside, the rider steered him out and began trying to pull him up.

When it came time to run past horses he would drown on a good day, Big Brown simply had no gas in the tank and nothing to offer. Being held hard when boxed in down the backstretch in the Preakness didn't anger, annoy, discourage, or disturb him to the point of surrender, so there's no reason to think that similar bumpiness earlier in the race had that effect in the Belmont. It was the colt's lack of his normal kick that alarmed his rider, who truly thought he had the race won when he found his desired spot after the opening half-mile.

Desormeaux did not cost anyone a nickel by pulling up Big Brown due to his perfectly understandable concern that something had gone physically amiss with the colt. The rider has had some issues in the past with not fully extending beaten horses when a close third- or fourth-place finish was on the line, but this was not similar to those cases. Big Brown was almost certainly going to finish ninth (instead of officially not finishing behind the eighth-place finisher) had Desormeaux persevered, and the jockey specifically addressed "show bettors and superfecta players" after the race when he assured them the colt had no chance whatsoever at a higher placing.

"He acted in the best interest of the horse," said Dr. Ted Hill, one of the three Belmont stewards who met with Desormeaux on Wednesday morning to review the race.

The stewards took no action against him for his ride, and good for them. Racing has enough legitimate equine health and safety issues that the last thing it should be doing is discouraging jockeys from making value judgments, or even erring on the side of caution, when there is any concern about the soundness of a beaten horse. Especially in the emotionally charged atmosphere in the wake of the Derby, it would be a shame if the disappointed squawking from some fans and sportswriters discouraged other riders from doing the same thing more often.