06/09/2008 12:00AM

Search resumes for next super horse


NEW YORK - So, where do we go from here?

The disappointment and shock over Big Brown's virtual non-performance in last Saturday's Belmont Stakes will soon subside. And when it does, the natural question will be: What does the Belmont mean for the rest of this racing year?

The simple fact that Big Brown did not deliver a Triple Crown shouldn't mean a heck of a lot. It will now be at least 31 years between Triple Crown winners, so the sport is used to functioning without one. But Big Brown's failure in the Belmont was different than all those that came before. It wasn't as if Big Brown performed gamely in defeat. He was the 19th horse to be denied a Triple Crown in the Belmont, and none of the previous 18 was beaten as badly as he was.

It wasn't as though Big Brown was clearly unable to stay the 1 1/2 miles or sustained an immediately apparent problem that had a direct correlation to his defeat. Big Brown barely performed at all. The field was still on the backstretch when it looked like he might be in trouble, and they had barely entered the far turn when it was obvious he had nothing. We don't know if Big Brown couldn't stay the distance, because on this day he didn't hang around for much more than a mile. In the meantime, his people, so far to no avail, search for a reason for why Big Brown was so empty that the most prudent course of action was for him to be eased more than a quarter-mile from the finish. Maybe he was under-trained. Maybe it was the quarter crack. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the track. Maybe it was the ride. Or maybe it was a combination of things. But so far, there are no hard answers.

And that makes projecting Big Brown's role in the second half of this year difficult. If it turns out that he has no physical issues, one would think his people would jump at an opportunity for Big Brown to redeem himself. But that could rub two ways. If Big Brown sustains another terrible defeat, it would do irreparable harm to his reputation and, beyond the well-timed stud deal his owners fashioned before the Preakness, severely damage his real-world value.

One thing is for sure, all the clamor for a meeting between Big Brown and reigning Horse of the Year Curlin is now on hold. For this match-up to have true meaning, Big Brown would first have to come back and win, and win big. Until that happens, all eyes turn to Curlin to lead the way. For Curlin to do that, however, he must do what many American-based horses have been unable to do, which is to be just as effective back in this country in relatively timely fashion after racing in the Dubai World Cup.

Curlin's mission in that regard was supposed to start in this Saturday's Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. It still might, but there have been complaints from his camp over the 128 pounds he was assigned in the Foster. Curlin's connections got a lot of well-deserved credit for keeping him in training this year at 4, but they lose some points for this. Over his last three starts, Curlin romped in the world's two richest Thoroughbred races - the Dubai World Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic. Given that no other champions are pointing to the Foster, Curlin's weight assignment seems fair.

And what about Da' Tara, the colt who posted the front-running upset in the Belmont Stakes? Can he be an important player the second half of this season?

Owner Robert LaPenta and trainer Nick Zito understand that you can't win races like the Belmont if you're not in them. And when Da' Tara became a prospective starter for the Belmont relatively late in the game, Zito rationalized the decision by referencing Commendable. Zito figured that Da' Tara, who for some inexplicable reason was one of three horses in the Belmont (Ready's Echo and Anak Nakal were the other two) who were longer prices than the uninspiring maiden Guadalcanal, could use his speed the way Commendable did when he upset the Belmont in 2000. But for their sake, Zito and LaPenta should hope the Commendable parallel ends there, since Commendable lost all four of his subsequent career starts. In any event, Da' Tara likely got lucky when Casino Drive had to be scratched from the Belmont, because it's easy to envision that a healthy Casino Drive would have galloped. Consequently, the onus will be on Da' Tara to prove in his upcoming starts that he is not a one-hit wonder.

So back to the original question, where do we go from here? Curlin will start soon, whether it's in the Foster or somewhere else. Zenyatta will be expected to keep on crushing everyone who runs against her. The way Zaftig won Saturday's Acorn at Belmont, it promises to be very interesting when she hooks up with Kentucky Oaks winner Proud Spell. There were nine races Sunday at Hollywood Park, there were 10 at Churchill Downs, and there will be nine races Wednesday at Belmont with a massive pick-six carryover. We will all do what we have been doing: We will enjoy the game and continue the search for the next super horse, because we didn't find one in the Belmont Stakes.