06/12/2008 11:00PM

Pedigree proved a factor in Big Brown's Belmont


NEW YORK - The mystery surrounding the performance of Big Brown in the Belmont Stakes has generated as many opinions as there were viewers of the race, virtually every one of them valid. The failure of the 3-10 choice can probably be laid to an accumulation of all of them.

A bad ride from a rider who disdains close quarters and who well may have quit on a horse that wasn't going to win but might have finished fourth or fifth. Lingering after-effects from an unhealed quarter crack. The lack of his monthly dose of steroids. Overweening confidence on the part of a trainer, who from June 7, 2008, forward must be known as Rick "Foregone Conclusion" Dutrow. And underlying it all, an inability to stay 1 1/2 miles.

By the Danzig stallion Boundary who never won beyond six furlongs and whose progeny have an average winning distance of just over 7 furlongs, out of a Nureyev mare who won once at 1 1/16 miles, Big Brown was never going to stay 12 furlongs. His grandsires made careers producing sprinters and milers, and he himself has a Gulch half-brother named Snake River Canyon whose lone try at 1 1/2 miles on turf at Keeneland resulted in a 25-length thrashing.

Yet we were repeatedly assured by Dutrow and owner Mike Iavarone that Big Brown would stay the distance. Even NTRA chief executive Alex Waldrop chimed in on Public Television's "Charlie Rose Show" that Big Brown had the pedigree to stay 1 1/2 miles, prompting one to wonder if anyone in this country knows how to interpret a pedigree.

Not that it is necessary to be bred to stay 1 1/2 miles to win at that distance in America, Da' Tara offering perfect proof of that. While the Belmont winner's sire Tiznow was a three-time Grade 1 winner going 1 1/4 miles, there is more to a pedigree than the sire's race record. Out of a Pirate's Bounty mare Torchera, whose two victories came at 6 1/2 furlongs, Da' Tara is a half-sibling to a well-traveled family, none of whom distinguished themselves at any distance. South Humor was a six-furlong winner in Japan, Krischera was 15th in his lone start at 1 1/2 miles in Saudi Arabia and seventh going 1 3/16 miles at Jebel Ali in the UAE. McGonagall was 0 for 3 at six and 6 1/2 furlongs in Mexico. And in his only start Carry the Torch was 12th in Hong Kong going six furlongs at Sha Tin. Da' Tara stole the Belmont with his natural speed, a cagey ride from Alan Garcia proving more than enough to trump a bunch of milers.

We have seen Kent Desormeaux stop riding horses in traffic, not for the first or last time, at Tokyo in the 2005 Japan Cup Dirt aboard Star King Man who, dueling on the rail with two horses on his outside, led narrowly in midstretch but faded late, finishing third beaten a neck by Kane Hekili. British and Japanese observers alike threw up their hands in dismay even before the replay confirmed what they had seen with their own eyes: Desormeaux had stopped riding at the sixteenth pole with the outcome of the race still in the balance. The same rider's panicky moves during the first half-mile of the Belmont when Big Brown was rank and in tight should have been expected from a jockey who does not like the look of things when between horses, but they alone cannot be blamed for Big Brown's failure.

That Casino Drive was scratched from the Belmont because of a minor foot bruise while Big Brown was allowed to run with a quarter crack is a measure of the way horses are handled in America and elsewhere. Big Brown's stallion fees had been in the bag since the Kentucky Derby, so Casino Drive had more to gain by running in the Belmont, yet trainer Kazuo Fujisawara and owner Hidetoshi Yamamoto did the right thing by withdrawing him. Casino Drive will live to fight another day, while Big Brown's reputation is on the verge of collapse. Was it the quarter crack that did him in? Only his vet knows for sure.

The way this Belmont turned out, there is a feeling that Casino Drive might have aired had he been healthy enough to run. Da' Tara's time of 2:29.65 earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 99, the lowest for a Belmont Stakes winner since Beyer Figures were first produced for the Daily Racing Form in 1990. As a Mineshaft half-brother to the last two winners of the Belmont, Casino Drive would almost certainly have outstayed one of the weakest Belmont fields in history.

Contrast the Belmont with the Epsom Derby and we find two horses at the head of that field that are not only bred to stay 1 1/2 miles, but stay with a vengeance. Running without steroids or Lasix, New Approach and Tartan Bearer put on a scintillating show at Epsom a few hours before the Belmont, New Approach emulating the 2001 victory of his sire Galileo, Tartan Bearer nearly duplicating the 1991 victory of his broodmare sire Generous. Just a half-length separated them at the wire, so their rematch in the Irish Derby on June 29 should set the Curragh alight. Meanwhile, the chances of any of the Belmont Stakes runners trying 1 1/2 miles again are slim, the distance deemed a marathon in America but properly gauged a middle-distance race in Europe having exposed the limitations of the domestic Thoroughbred, at the same time disappointing millions of potential racing fans who deserved better than Dutrow's empty hyperboles.