05/31/2012 2:52PM

Triple Crown near-misses: Big Brown, 2008

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Barbara D. Livingston
Jockey Kent Desormeaux eases Big Brown in the stretch of the Belmont in 2008, the last year a horse went into the race with a chance to sweep the Triple Crown.

Big Brown, the most recent to attempt the Crown, turned out to every bit as mortal as Sunday Silence or Spectacular Bid when it came to the fundamental vulnerability of a horse without perfect feet.

In Big Brown’s case it was the recurrence of a quarter crack that seriously impacted his training for Rick Dutrow between his impressive wins in the 2008 Preakness and the Belmont. At the same time, it was the colt’s abject lack of serious competition in the Belmont field that gave his backers reason to believe the Triple Crown still could be won. For Big Brown to lose, something would have to go wrong.

So it did. Big Brown’s Belmont journey was a nightmare from the start. Pinned inside, the colt and Kent Desormeaux wrestled each other to the turn, bumped another horse out of the way, and then moved into a moderate pace about as relaxed as a cat in a room full of rockers. Whether you want to believe Desormeaux strangled the life out of Big Brown or Big Brown refused to take reasonable cues from his rider, the result was the same. Desormeaux asked Big Brown to go after the pacesetting Da’ Tara as they approached the head of the stretch and the answer was a deflating, “No mas,” at which point the rider mercifully eased the heavy favorite out of the race.

Da’ Tara, at 38-1, went on to win the race, and the Belmont stands erupted in catcalls at the sight of a geared-down Big Brown trotting home last. Reaction was mixed. There were those who wanted to string up Dutrow and Desormeaux by their thumbs, while others would have preferred tar and feathers. Nick Zito, Da’ Tara’s trainer, took a more philosophical view.

“This game will humble kings, and before honor is humility,” said Zito, who also trained Birdstone. “No matter what. If you’re around as long as we are, you can’t guarantee anything in this sport.”

Triple Crown near-misses

Spectacular Bid (1979) Pleasant Colony (1981) Alysheba (1987) Sunday Silence (1989)
Silver Charm (1997) Real Quiet (1998) Charismatic (1999) War Emblem (2002)
Funny Cide (2003) Smarty Jones (2004) Big Brown (2008)