America expected an imperious, rampant champion, a lap of honour, a first Triple Crown winner in three decades. Instead the abiding image was of Rick Dutrow, slumped alone over a rail in a hidden corner of Belmont Park, the very picture of dejection. All that could be seen of the trainer was his broad, sagging back, his light blue shirt blackened with sweat. His world had come apart, and even American cameras would pry no closer.
Five weeks of bragging had elapsed since Big Brown's sensational success in the Kentucky Derby. In the meantime, the brash, brawny colt had won the Preakness Stakes with equal leisure, and the late withdrawal of his only serious opponent, Casino Drive, had seemed to confirm that destiny finally beckoned an heir to Affirmed, who had become the last of 11 Triple Crown winners in 1978.
But 94,476 sweltering New Yorkers watched in dismay as Kent Desormeaux started to wriggle uncomfortably in the saddle even before leaving the back stretch. It was soon plain that the leader, Da' Tara, was still going far more sweetly and Desormeaux quickly resolved to ease Big Brown, certain that something was amiss. So it was that the 3-10 favourite finished on the bridle, as everyone expected – but coasting home in last place.
No physical explanation arose overnight for his performance. In fairness, there had been no shortage of vultures over Big Brown, who to some eyes had come to distil the moral decay of American racing.
Dutrow had frankly confessed to administering steroids to his horses, and the fact that he was able to do so within the rules focused international attention on their laxity.
As a son of a sprinting stallion, moreover, he represented the reckless lust for speed among commercial breeders since the days of Affirmed. As the only serious dirt race over a mile and a half, the Belmont has thwarted a series of Triple Crown aspirants over recent years. Regardless, there had also been a sense that Big Brown, by fair means or foul, might prove the last of the great dirt champions before the introduction of safer, synthetic surfaces.
Those who took all these factors into account will now be cynically confident that Big Brown's reputation – and value as a stallion – will never be risked again. In the absence of anything that obviously required treatment, one of his co-owners yesterday said that the colt would proceed as scheduled to the big summer meeting at Saratoga.
It was there, back in 1919, that Upset had the temerity to live up to his name by beating the mighty Man O' War. The farrier who shod Upset was grandfather of David Patterson, the governor of New York State, who had expected to present Dutrow with his trophy on Saturday.
Instead, he was shaking hands with Nick Zito, a New Yorker who had also foiled the Triple Crown bid of Smarty Jones with Birdstone in 2004. "The governor put it best," Zito said. "His relation put the shoes on Upset. That's the game. You keep trying. The champ didn't run his race today. He wasn't himself. Da' Tara was."