Big Brown's Story Is A Mystery

By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 9, 2008

NEW YORK, June 8 -- From epic winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness to agitated colt that barely made it across the finish line in the Belmont Stakes, the dramatic fall of Big Brown has left unanswered, vexing questions.

The day after finishing last at Belmont Park in his effort to become the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years, Big Brown reportedly was doing well. An examination of his lungs found no bleeding, according to part-owner Paul Pompa. The quarter crack in his left front hoof looked no worse than before.

"Kent Desormeaux [Big Brown's jockey] came to meet us after the race, and I said, 'Kent, what happened?' He said, 'Paul, he just didn't have it. Some days are like that,' " Pompa said. "These are animals; they're not machines."

Yet when an undefeated horse, sent off at odds of 3-10, loses to an unheralded 38-1 shot in front of more than 94,000 people, questions abound.

Mike Iavarone, head of the IEAH Stables syndicate that races Big Brown, suggested Sunday that a water outage at Belmont Park on Saturday may have changed the nature of the dirt racing surface to one his horse did not like.

"I'm understanding they had an issue with water, and they weren't able to water the track and it got deep," Iavarone said.

Belmont track superintendent John Passero, however, said his crew never ran out of water.

"We had four trucks," Passero said. "Those two shiny ones are 5,000 gallons each, and the other two are 4,000 gallons. I had 18,000 gallons when they turned the water off.

"I called [racing secretary] P.J. Campo and said, 'Get the water on and get it on now.' I said, 'If we have a choice -- dirty toilets or a fast track -- we'll take the fast track. We were ready to go over to the county to fill up [the trucks] at a fire plug, but we never had to do it."

Passero said the 1 1/2 -mile track was watered -- to keep the dirt from expanding or getting dusty -- after each race.

"I thought the track was perfect," he said.

Larry Bramlage, the on-site veterinarian at Belmont and spokesman for the American Association of Equine Practitioners, said the heat might have affected Big Brown. Temperatures rose above 90 degrees in the afternoon and two horses on the race card suffered heat-related stress.

Big Brown also had a rough trip and looked uncomfortable through the first six furlongs of the race. When the gate opened, winner Da' Tara sprinted to the lead, and Desormeaux quickly wrangled Big Brown away from the inside in an effort to gain a stalking position outside the leader.

Jockey Eibar Coa, aboard Tale of Ekati, blocked Big Brown's path to the outside and moved into second place. Finally, Big Brown bumped Anak Nakal and got clear, taking third heading into the backstretch. All this time, he appeared aggressive and unsettled with his head jerking around.

"His behavior was as bad the first three quarters of a mile as it's been good in the past," Bramlage said.

When Desormeaux urged Big Brown to engage Da' Tara on the far turn, he received no response for the first time. Rather than abuse Big Brown as the rest of the field passed him by, Desormeaux slowed to a jog. "This horse was in no way, shape or form lame," Desormeaux said afterward. "But there is something amiss."

Bramlage did not directly examine Big Brown after the race but observed him for the entire Triple Crown series and said he never saw signs of soreness.

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