It’s the forever question in horse racing: What happened? And, with horses who can’t talk and with tens of millions (if not hundreds of millions) of dollars at stake in stud fees, even the most experienced jockeys and trainers often seem to be at a loss for an explanation.
Here are a few possibilities:
1) Jockey Kent Desormeaux shut off Big Brown’s air in the beginning of the race: While most experts said post one wouldn’t be a problem, the reality was that, even in a short field, Big Brown could and did have some traffic problems early in the race. Clearly the horse was rank (hard to handle because he wanted to go on early). The result of that can be briefly shutting a horse’s wind off, where he’s unable to catch his breath briefly, which results in his not racing well. And even if the horse “scoped clean,” as was reported, when a horse has his wind shut off briefly, that doesn’t necessarily show up on a scope (vet sticks a tube down the horse’s throat after the race to look at the area for signs of bleeding or mucus or redness, etc.).
2) What about that quarter crack? While Desormeaux said the horse wasn’t lame, he was drifting out from the moment the gate opened, through the first turn and frankly, for a large part of the race. Any vet will tell you that one cause of a horse running out (to his right) could be soreness on the left side (the now-famous quarter crack was on the left side). Conversely, if a horse is running in (towards the rail), that can often be a sign of right side injury or soreness. Remember, just because a horse isn’t limping, that doesn’t mean he’s not sore. Something could have just been “pinching” Big Brown and that could have been enough to cause him to run poorly.
3) Big Brown got dirt in his face early: You’ll recall that much was made in the Derby and Preakness about Desormeaux taking Big Brown to the outside to avoid having dirt hit him in the face, something that apparently had never happened to Big Brown before. Well, again from post one, some dirt had to hit him in the face until either Desormeaux pulled him to the outside or Big Brown pulled Desormeaux to the outside (it’s not clear which happened). When dirt hits some horses in the face and they’re not use to it, it can cause them to not try as hard as they normally would.
4) The mile-and-a-half was just too much for Big Brown: This will be the weakest of possible explanations. Big Brown was in trouble going into the final turn. He was done long before the extra quarter-mile that is the (stupid) distance for the Belmont. Remember, horses don’t race that distance on dirt before the Belmont and horses don’t race that distance on dirt after the Belmont. It’s something that should be looked at, but that’s for another time.
5) The 95 degree heat: Some horses don’t like the heat. This is probably the hottest it’s ever been in Big Brown’s limited racing career on race day. It certainly could have hurt him on Belmont day.
BUT HERE’S THE BEST REASON OF ALL:
6) THREE RACES IN FIVE WEEKS: Kent Desormeaux said it best: “He was just out of gas.” This wasn’t a horse who got beat in the final strides like Smarty Jones did in 2004 (and congratulations to the giant-killer, trainer Nick Zito, who beat Smarty Jones with Birdstone in 2004 and beat Big Brown on Saturday with outsider Da’ Tara). This was a horse who was done around the final turn. While this was a topic of a recent article in this space (see Kallas Remarks, 5/16/08), it seems to be gaining support in the racing mainstream. Just last week, legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas called for the Triple Crown races to be more spread apart, with the Travers being the “fourth leg” of the Triple Crown (called the “Grand Slam” by some). Horses today simply are not bred or trained to race three times in five weeks. And this year’s Belmont may be the best proof of all of that.
WHAT DO THE OWNERS DO NOW?
Because of the arrogance of the trainer, many people are happy that Big Brown got beat. But don’t penalize the horse for the arrogance of the trainer, even though I agree with trainer David Carroll’s statement (he finished second with Denis of Cork): “I’ve always thought you should win with class and you should lose with class” (as reported by Mike Vaccaro in the New York Post). Amen to that, although we live in a different world today.
The owners have a tough call now. If they race Big Brown again, and he loses, then his value plummets. However, if it was three races in five weeks (as I and others suspect), and he rests up and returns for, say, the Travers in late August at Saratoga and wins, then we may have the answer to what happened.
But that’s a gazillion dollar gamble. Like many before him, Big Brown is just another in the long list of horses who failed to get it done. Between him and Smarty Jones, it now seems impossible to do, for whatever reason.
WHAT SHOULD THE INDUSTRY DO NOW?
Here’s hoping that the powers-that-be in thoroughbred racing see the obvious and change the timing (and review the distances as well) of the Triple Crown races. As suggested previously, the first Saturday in May (Derby), the first Saturday in June (Preakness) and the first Saturday in July (Belmont) is the ideal schedule in the 21sr Century. Thoroughbred racing should enter this century sooner rather than later.
© Copyright 2008 by Steve Kallas. All rights reserved.