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It could have been anything - except the ride

6/13/2008

Blaming Kent Desormeaux for Big Brown's putrid performance in the Belmont Stakes is beyond dumb. It is insane. The Kent bashers have lost their minds, and they should be institutionalized.

When a horse is as bad as Big Brown was in the Belmont Stakes, it cannot possibly be the jockey's fault. A jockey's ride might mean the difference of a length or two. This horse was beaten a sixteenth of a mile. Big Brown clearly wasn't right, clearly wasn't the same horse that was so dominant in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He was through with a half-mile to go, completely empty. How can that possibly be the jockey's doing?

The "It Was All Kent's Fault" crowd will tell you that he somehow lost the race, all 12 furlongs of it, when he restrained Big Brown in the early going rather than let him run freely. That is ridiculous because:

  • Desormeaux had no choice. Big Brown made a right-hand turn out of the gate, and wound up in a box between Da' Tara and Tale of Ekati. He could have recklessly bulled his way between those horses and then, probably, engaged Da' Tara in a speed duel. By avoiding both scenarios, he made the right decision.

  • The problems he had in the beginning of the race are nothing more than a minor issue. Big Brown got out of the jam in plenty of time and was in perfect striking position all down the backstretch and into the far turn. A horse who is supposed to be that good should have overcome the early trouble with no problem. He had a much worse trip in the Kentucky Derby when five wide the whole trip.

  • He had pretty much the same trip in the Preakness, where he was boxed in early, sat third, made his move approaching the far turn and won in a romp. In the Belmont, he was boxed in early, sat third early, made his move approaching the far turn and had nothing.

  • Big Brown was rank and appeared uncomfortable in the early stages. With this horse, that wasn't supposed to happen. Throughout the Triple Crown, Desormeaux and Rick Dutrow talked about how the horse would do anything the jockey wanted at any time and was the prototypical "push-button colt." He wasn't like that in the Belmont, which means, again, that he was not the same horse, that something wasn't quite right.

Dutrow has been the lead Desormeaux basher since the Belmont and his criticisms have included the jockey's decision to ease Big Brown. Instead of ripping him for pulling the horse up he should throw a parade in his honor. The horse was hopelessly beaten and is worth $50 million. It would have been reckless and dangerous to ask a tired, defeated horse for everything down the stretch. Imagine if those tactics caused an injury. Desormeaux would have been vilified.

Now, even Desormeaux has chimed in with a conspiracy theory of his own, blaming the starter. Desormeaux told the New York Daily News that Big Brown shied away from starter Roy Robert Williamson, who positioned himself on the racetrack itself, a few feet from the inner rail, and that's why he got into a jackpot early.

So what if he did? This was supposed to be the greatest horse to hit the racetrack since Spectacular Bid. He's supposed to overcome what couldn't have been more than a minor distraction.

So, what did happen to Big Brown? I believe this was a case of horse bouncing as hard as a horse can bounce. He had run two very fast races in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in the span of two weeks and was asked to do the same in the Belmont. I figured that he would regress in the final leg of the Triple Crown and I wrote as much in columns touting Casino Drive, who would have surely won this race if he hadn't been injured. Most Triple Crown hopefuls go the wrong way in the Belmont, the primary reason 11 straight horses have now had a chance to win the Triple Crown and have all failed. Of course, I never figured he would fall apart.

A lot had been asked of Big Brown. After running just once as a 2-year-old, he was rushed into a 3-year-old campaign that was delayed due to foot problems. He came into the Kentucky Derby woefully light on experience. He won the Derby and then two weeks later had to do it again in the Preakness. There was every chance the wheels would come off, and did they ever.

Was that it? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. These things happen. Horses are not machines; they have bad days. We may never know what happened to Big Brown in the Belmont Stakes. It could have been anything ... other than a bad ride.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.