Belmont bust

The Baltimore Sun

Unless something comes up in scientific testing to explain Big Brown's sluggish run in the Belmont Stakes, the reasons the colt, who was a favorite to end the 30-year Triple Crown drought, couldn't deliver are likely to remain a mystery.

Why did he run so poorly, finishing last, in the Belmont on Saturday? Why didn't he run as he had in the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness?

Big Brown had won the first five races of his career, and none had been close. And, so, in the absence of some absolute determination, there will be theories and conjecture.

At the top of any list will be how much steroids or the lack thereof helped or hurt Big Brown. Of course, the crack in his left front hoof and its ramifications, including the loss of training time, will be debated. One of his owners tossed out that the dry track might have been too "deep." And then there's the issue of the oppressive heat and humidity that hung over the Northeastern United States that day. Now it's being suggested that trainer Rick Dutrow might have altered the horse's intake of electrolytes, which would prevent dehydration. And I'll be surprised if we don't hear some exotic conspiracy theories tied, of course, to wagering.

The easier explanation is simply that on this given Saturday in June, the horse just didn't feel like running as hard as he normally does. We tend to anthropomorphize animals - credit them with characteristics that are human. In Big Brown's case, because we considered the Belmont the biggest horse race in the past several years, the horse was supposed to somehow sense the importance of the moment, too.

Well, Big Brown ran hard for the first two-thirds of that race, and, for whatever reason, when he came around that far turn, he figured enough was enough. Perhaps to him, he was just on another gallop around the track for exercise. Didn't occur to him that history was at stake when long-shot Da' Tara raced to victory.

But I doubt that's going to satisfy human observers. You see, we have our own psychological needs. We need to make sense out of things that don't make sense. Ancient man did it with natural phenomena. The sun comes up in the East and sets in the West. The weather changes from hot to cold and back to hot. Twinkling lights in the sky move around. And so our ancestors, ignorant of the universe and nature, came up with elaborate explanations of gods and goddesses acting out to make it light or dark or warm or cool, the earth fertile or barren.

Similarly, Big Brown's performance will be scrutinized because it's also in modern man's nature to seek a rationale, no matter how elusive, which also means that something or someone has to be at fault. Finding reasons for failure and assigning blame go hand in hand.

With bids for the Triple Crown, when a horse falls short in the Belmont, often it's the jockey who gets the heat - that perhaps he brought the horse out too quickly for the long race. Kent Desormeaux on Real Quiet, Chris Antley on Charismatic and Stewart Elliott on Smarty Jones have all been second-guessed.

This time, there's a convenient fall guy, the mouthy trainer, Dutrow, whom no one much liked to begin with. After all, it's not in our nature to blame the animal.

And so the guessing and speculation and theories about Big Brown promise to become part of sports lore, sort of the way there has been a decades-old guessing game about Babe Ruth's "called shot" off the Chicago Cubs' Charlie Root in the 1932 World Series and the inexplicable way Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass completely lost the strike zone in 1973 after an All-Star season.

But at least in the case of Blass, the guy could discuss what happened, what might have gone wrong. With Big Brown, we'll never hear an explanation from the horse's mouth.

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