NEW YORK - In the days before the Belmont Stakes, Robert LaPenta kept waiting for someone, anyone, to ask him about Da’ Tara.
“Not one writer mentioned Da’ Tara to come in anywhere in the race except next to last,” LaPenta said. “They kept saying he didn’t belong in the race. But I had a feeling. I thought he would do very well.”
Did he ever.
The 3-year-old colt spoiled Big Brown’s run at history Saturday, claiming the Belmont as the longest shot in the nine-horse field and giving his vivacious owner and trainer Nick Zito redemption.
Four months ago, the duo thought they would be celebrating in the winner’s circle with the highly touted War Pass. But last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion’s path to the Triple Crown ended in April because of a leg injury.
“We wish we were here with War Pass, but Da’ Tara said he would do it for him,” a giddy LaPenta said.
Da’ Tara wasn’t even considered for the Derby, not after finishing 23½ lengths behind Big Brown in the Florida Derby. Yet Zito kept sending him out there, and when the son of Tiznow managed to finish second to Roman Emperor at the Barbaro Stakes on the Preakness undercard, LaPenta decided to take a flyer and put him in the punishing Belmont.
“Nick called about a week ago and he said, ’Are we crazy?”’ LaPenta said. “And we said, ’Look, we’re always crazy,’ and we did it.”
Da’ Tara did it by zipping to the lead under jockey Alan Garcia, who hadn’t ridden the colt since the horse’s debut race at Belmont last September. Speed horses aren’t supposed to manage the demanding 1½-mile third jewel of the Triple Crown, and Zito admits he kept looking at Big Brown during the race, waiting for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner to make his move.
Only the move never came. Instead, it was Da’ Tara who took off, pulling away from the field and giving Zito his second Triple Crown spoiler in five years. Zito trained 2004 Belmont winner Birdstone, who edged by Smarty Jones in the final 70 yards to win.
No such dramatics were necessary this time around. Zito began celebrating his fifth Triple Crown win a little early, jumping up and down over the race’s final quarter-mile while Big Brown pulled up and finished last.
“Big Brown’s a champion. He just wasn’t himself today and we took advantage of it,” Zito said.
The victory was the first Triple Crown win for the 22-year-old Garcia, whom Zito had replaced on Da’ Tara after that first ride, and the colt went through four riders over his next races before Zito decided to give him another try in the Belmont.
Garcia repaid him by expertly taking Da’ Tara directly to the lead in the Belmont. While Big Brown struggled, Da’ Tara played around, flicking his ears while they raced down the backstretch to let Garcia know he had plenty left.
“I started to smile and say ’I think I have (a) shot,”’ Garcia said. “Then my horse take off and I thought, ’Oh, my God.”’
The win gave Zito and LaPenta a dose of good karma to offset the problems of the spring, when War Pass stumbled from unbeaten youngster to karmically challenged also-ran. He finished last in the Tampa Bay Derby, then suffered a gash in his chin during a bumpy plane ride to New York for the Wood Memorial, where he was caught in the final six strides by Tale of Ekati.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
At that point, Da’ Tara was still a project, coming in fifth during the lightly regarded Derby Trial in late April. But there was something about the way he ran the Barbaro Stakes that made Zito think he was onto something.
On Saturday, that something turned into one of the more remarkable wins in Zito’s storied career.
Asked to put the win in career perspective, Zito referenced a song used in the documentary “The First Saturday in May,” which chronicled the 2006 Derby.
“They have a song in there, I think, that’s absolutely appropriate to what happened today, ’Rain or Shine,’ and today was shine.”
Trainer Shug McGaughey is still thinking Belmont Stakes for his Kentucky Derby winner after Orb galloped a mile Thursday morning at Belmont Park.
Jon Siegel & Joel Cunningham recap an exciting Preakness Stakes and review the breakout performance by Oxbow. The colt remains in the TCI Top 4 after final Derby preparations, despite his poor Arkansas Derby showing.