06/14/2008 11:00PM

One Belmont '08 tale stands apart

Email

TUCSON, Ariz. - It is difficult to feel sorry for Rick Dutrow, although ABC's closing shot of him hanging over the rail at his barn, shirt soaked with the sweat of a steaming Belmont Day, trying to figure out what went wrong, was touching.

It is almost impossible to feel sorry for Michael Iavarone, the self-styled "just a guy from Long Island," given his short memory for facts of his career that drew so much ink leading up to the Belmont Stakes.

It is easy to feel sorry for Kent Desormeaux, who at the head of the stretch in the Belmont knew something was wrong with Big Brown. Very possibly it was the scary jam-up going to the first turn, when he ran up on the heels of the horse in front of him, but whatever it was, Desormeaux eased him, painfully aware of the furor that followed the disastrous Eight Belles incident. Now Dutrow is blaming Desormeaux for a bad ride.

It is even easier to feel sorry for Hidetoshi Yamamoto, who paid $950,000 for Casino Drive as a yearling after watching on television in Tokyo as the colt's half-brother Jazil won the Belmont. Casino Drive came all the way from Japan for the race, but had to be scratched the morning of the Belmont Stakes with a bruised foot. It's also easy to feel sorry for Yamamoto's bloodstock agent, Nobutaka Tada, who handled himself with class and dignity during all the Big Brown tumult leading to the race.

The easiest to be sorry for is not Big Brown or Dutrow or Iavarone or Yamamoto, but Better Than Honour. Now only 12, she very likely would have pulled off the incredible hat trick - totally unimaginable to those who breed horses and know the odds - of producing three Belmont winners in a row. The feat has been compared, and rightly, to the immortal Woody Stephens training five Belmonts in a row. People in sports love to use the expression "a record that never will be beaten," - a silly statement on its face - but what Stephens did and what Better Than Honour did and might have done are two that actually might fit.

In the hubbub of buildup for Big Brown, and the anointing of him as Triple Crown winner before the starter pressed the button to open the starting gate, relatively few writers paid heed to Better Than Honour's incredible credentials.

Three who did during Belmont week were John Scheinman, writing in the Washington Post; Glenye Cain Oakford, in this newspaper; and Bill Finley, in the New York Times.

Oakford's story of the convoluted ownership of Better Than Honour was truly interesting. The mare bounced around after her first owner, Robert Waxman, sold her privately eight years ago to John Sikura of Hill 'n' Dale Farm in the Kentucky bluegrass. Sikura then sold her in 2002, after first declining to do so, to Stanley Gumberg and his son Ira, owners of Skara Glen Stable. Sikura would not reveal the price, but told Scheinman, "It was an elite number. There were lots of zeros." Enough, it turns out, to add up to more than $2 million.

The Gumbergs kept Better Than Honour for another two years, then sold her at auction in 2004 to BBA Ireland, representing Coolmore Stud, in foal to Mineshaft and carrying Casino Drive for $2 million. They have no regrets. They sold the A.P. Indy filly she was carrying at the time for $925,000, 2006 Belmont winner Jazil for $725,000, and 2007 Belmont winner Rags to Riches for $1.9 million.

Sikura by then was having second thoughts about having sold Better Than Honour, but he is a longtime horseman who knows both the ecstasy and agony of this game. "In this business," he told Scheinman, "it's not helpful to have regret."

He wanted her back, however, and in 2006, after Jazil won the Belmont, he and Michael Moreno and partners bought her from Coolmore, for a price large enough that Sikura prefers not to reveal it. He worries not about the money but about the mare.

"It's kind of like owning a Monet painting, when there's only one. If you think about it too much, it makes you nervous," he told Scheinman.

He ended his Post interview with a quote so eloquent and true that every owner should frame it on the wall.

"This whole business is about exaggeration and childlike belief," he said, "and most things let you down. You think about greatness and immortality and undefeated, and in real-world parlance those things almost never occur. But they occur just so often that you still can believe."