06/09/2008 12:00AM

'Wait till next year' again


ELMONT, N.Y. - You could see it on her face, the disappointment, the exhaustion, the drool. Angelic little Sophia Rhein, 15 months old, daughter of veterinarian Kristian Rhein, clung to her father's shoulder as the crowd around her near the finish line filled the air with a deafening, full-blooded New York reaction to Big Brown's meek surrender in last Saturday's 140th running of the Belmont Stakes.

"Where is he? Where is he? He's done!"

"Oh my God! He didn't even finish!"

"What a disgrace!"

Sophia kept her counsel, but it was easy to read her mind.

"I missed my nap for this?"

Her father, who numbers Todd Pletcher among his clients, made no apologies.

"I wanted her to witness history," he said. "Even if she doesn't remember, at least she could say she was here."

There was no chance that the crowd of 94,476, plus horseplayers everywhere, would ever speak with a single voice. Still, even the parimutuel losers would have been pleased enough to have left Belmont Park that day knowing they were in on something special, a high-water mark in the treasured lore of the game.

This, despite the fact that the track's water pressure failed almost as badly as Big Brown, leaving customers high and dry. Despite the fact that they did not get the Big Brown rally towels vaguely promised by the Big Brown people earlier in the week, which, given the heat and the water pressure, would have come in handy. And despite the fact that there was no featured presence of the Hooters franchise that had attached itself to the fortunes of Kent Desormeaux, Big Brown's jockey, especially in the wake of this exchange from last week's episode of everyone's favorite reality quiz show "Moment of Truth."

Question: "While working at Hooters, did you ever have sex with one of your customers?"

Answer (after dramatic pause): "Yes."

Stay classy, horse racing.

In that parallel universe occupied by Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, such considerations were not significant. At the end of Belmont Day, as darkness fell and dry lightning lit the northern sky, Zito wandered the spacious courtyard of his Belmont barn, his cell phone jangling the theme to ESPN's "Baseball Tonight," while Da' Tara nibbled at a hay pile along with stablemate Anak Nakal, who dead-heated for third.

In the avalanche of questions and recriminations spilling forth in the wake of Big Brown's race, one single misconception screeched loudest of all - Nick Zito did not "spoil" this chance for a Triple Crown winner. Da' Tara, a Tiznow colt of modest accomplishments, did not go after a tiring Big Brown on the lead, as Zito's victorious Birdstone went after Smarty Jones and beat him a length at the end of the 2004 Belmont. There were no apologies this time around, and none needed.

"I love the classics," Zito said. "We've been second in the Belmont, what, seven times?"

Six, actually, and two Zito wins from what is now a record 20 Belmont starters.

"The percentage isn't great," Zito conceded. "But in these big races, if you keep trying and you win one, you got it made."

Zito was asked if he had any consoling words for his fellow trainer Rick Dutrow, who promised more than once that Big Brown would win the Belmont.

"No," Zito replied. "No consoling words at all. Like I just told Sports Illustrated, this game will humble kings, and before honor is humility. No matter what. If you're around as long as we are you can't guarantee anything in this sport. Right or wrong? It's impossible!"

Zito, the good Catholic boy, was quoting from the Old Testament book of Proverbs. The entire verse reads, "Before destruction a man's heart is haughty, but humility goes before honor."

Right or wrong?

There was a certain amount of "I told you so's" heaped down upon Dutrow's weary brow, although not too many from those who know firsthand how tough the game can be. And yet, for every abject failure in a high-profile event - whether it was Miss Musket in her match race, Demons Begone in his Derby, or Big Brown trying for a Triple Crown - there have been an equal number of transcendent performers who came through time after time.

"Unbelievable," said Patrice Wolfson, owner of Affirmed, as she sat stunned in her Belmont box seat after the race. "I wonder if it had some effect when Big Brown ran up on horses heels going into the first turn."

Thirty years earlier that same first turn set the stage for the last successful Triple Crown attempt, when Steve Cauthen steered Affirmed wide on the lead and Jorge Velasquez refused to be sucked inside with Alydar. A quarter-mile later, they were lapped on each other, eventually answering to the challenge of announcer Chick Anderson, "We'll test these two to the wire."

Wolfson had been ready to pass the torch, though. In her view, the Triple Crown club needed new members.

"It's time," she said the week before the race, as she prepared to attend a tribute to Affirmed at the Kentucky Horse Park, with its catchphrase "The Legend Grows."

Now Wolfson was bearing bittersweet witness to yet another 3-year-old reaching to join Affirmed and the other 10 Triple Crown winners, and falling short.

"The legend grows," she said with a sigh, " . . . and grows and grows."