For the 11th time since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978, the air rushed out of the blimp. Only this time, it was a slow leak rather than a puncture. The full-throated roar that accompanied Big Brown around the track was quickly throttled back as the field turned for home and Big Brown began to fade and bear out.
As it diminished, it was replaced by the sound of thousands and thousands of people asking variations of a single question, “What happened?”
On the third floor of the grandstand, fans appeared disoriented, as if they had just awoken from a deep sleep. Some had tears in their eyes, some shook their heads and some just stared.
They rallied slightly when Da’ Tara returned to the winner’s circle, giving the Nick Zito-trained colt a nice round of applause. They then turned on their heels and began streaming for the exits.
Big Brown’s jockey Kent Desormeaux was in a similar state. “I think I’m numb, a little lost,” he said at a post-race news conference.
Nor could he explain the Big Brown letdown — the worst finish ever by a horse trying to complete a Triple Crown bid.
“I was keeping an eye on the horse in front and I thought, ‘Let’s engage,’ and I was done. I had no horse,” he said.
But Desormeux said the colt gave no indication he was hurting.
Trainer Rick Dutrow Jr., who earlier in the week called Big Brown’s victory in the Belmont Stakes a “forgone conclusion,” rushed back to the barn to tend to the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, the lowest price Belmont Stakes favorite since Secretariat in 1973. He later told reporters that he couldn’t find anything physically wrong with the colt and was next planning to “scope” him to see if bleeding from his nostrils or throat could have interfered with his breathing.
But he indicated that he didn’t believe that was the problem, since Big Brown “didn’t even cough,” as he was walked back to the barn.
“The horse … looks like he is fine to me,” he said. “So the only thing I know to do is to wait and see how things go. I watched him cool out and he doesn’t seem to be off in any kind of way. I don’t see a problem, and I am looking for one.”
Dutrow also had a message for Big Brown fans.
“Everyone who was a Big Brown fan, I’m sure, was disappointed, just like I am. But we’re going to check him out and see if he is OK. If we’re sure he is 100 percent getting back into training, we’ll go forward with him. If not, I’m sure we’ll just do the next thing, which is to retire him.”
Others speculated that Big Brown’s injured left front hoof had acted up, despite Dutrow’s assurances before the race that it was not a problem. A third school of thought was that the temperatures in the mid-90s and high humidity had sapped the champ.
But as racing’s record Triple Crown drought stretched to at least 31 years, they weren’t sharing the disappointment felt by so many other racing fans around the country. They went back to the business at hand, poring over the Daily Racing Form and trying to catch a long shot of the Da’ Tara kind.
Kentucky Derby champion Animal Kingdom was unable to go out a winner, fading quickly in the Queen Anne Stakes on Tuesday in his last race before retirement.
Ramon Dominguez, a three-time Eclipse Award winner as the leading jockey in North America, retired on Thursday due to a head injury suffered in a fall earlier this year.