Reprinted from The Blood-Horse
The 140th Belmont Stakes (gr. I) was expected to unfold like a modern day version of When Worlds Collide, as the racing world took on the breeding world in what promised to be an epic battle between racing’s two domains. The main combatants in the “Test of the Champion” were Big Brown, who was attempting to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first in 30 years, and Casino Drive, who was trying to become the third straight Belmont Stakes winner produced by his dam, Better Than Honour. A victory by either horse would result in one of the most memorable accomplishments in the history of The Sport of Kings.
But when it was over, Big Brown’s quest had ended in ignominious defeat, as did Better Than Honour’s extraordinary streak. One of the saddest sights in memory was that of Big Brown, the colt who had never found a mountain he couldn’t climb, being reluctantly eased across the finish line by jockey Kent Desormeaux, who fought the colt the entire length of the stretch. This followed the announcement earlier in the day that the Japanese-trained Casino Drive had been scratched after suffering a stone bruise two days before the race.
The Belmont Stakes once again had rudely shut the door on immortality.
And who better to help shut it than New York’s favorite son, Nick Zito, who had slammed the same door in Smarty Jones’ face in 2004 with Birdstone. Zito proved once again he doesn’t need heavy artillery to obliterate a horse’s chances of sweeping the Triple Crown. Birdstone was 36-1 when he upset Smarty Jones, and his latest hero, Da’ Tara, was 38-1 in his 5 1⁄4-length wire-to-wire shocker. Zito arguably is the only trainer in New York who can return to a hero’s welcome after shattering the dreams of so many people.
Most had envisioned June 7 as a date that would be stamped in racing lore. The emotions that had been imprisoned within all racing fans for three decades finally were to be released. Belmont Park was supposed to be engulfed by an unbroken wave of euphoria as Big Brown returned in triumph. Instead, the previously unbeaten colt, who had been dubbed a freak of nature, exited quietly in front of more than 94,000 fans, most of them baffled, heartbroken, and concerned for the welfare of the horse.
According to all reports, the quarter crack that had plagued the colt two weeks earlier was not the reason for his performance, nor was any other physical ailment. On the morning after the race, the colt seemed comfortable as he picked at his bedding, his back to the door, oblivious to all the emotional conflicts he had caused. Was it the stifling heat, the deep track, missing several training days, being rank early, the restraint by Desormeaux, the traffic and bumping early in the race, acting up in the holding barn, all of the above, none of the above? We’ll probably never find out for sure.
For the record books, the 2008 Belmont Stakes was about Zito, owner Robert LaPenta, and a late-developing son of Tiznow—Torchera, by Pirate’s Bounty, who blew open the third leg of the Triple Crown, giving Zito his second Belmont winner to go along with six seconds and three thirds. As was the case in 2004 when Zito ran first and third with Birdstone and Royal Assault, he also finished third this year with Anak Nakal, who dead-heated with Ready’s Echo. In all, Zito has finished in the first four in the Belmont and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) 21 times (15 of those in the first three), to go along with his Kentucky Derby (gr. I) victories in 1991 and ’94.
Zito has always said he lives and breathes the Triple Crown, and he was living it and breathing it to its fullest as he stood in the gap near the entrance to the tunnel with his wife, Kim. When Da’ Tara turned for home with a clear lead, Zito began jumping up and down while throwing out his right fist in a piston-like motion. Then came one final thrust to the heavens as Da’ Tara began to spread-eagle the field. That was followed by the hugging and kissing, the autograph signing and picture-taking, and the overall adulation from the Zito-zealous crowd. One fan yelled, “I told you this was Nick Zito’s town.”
The journey on this year’s Triple Crown trail by Zito and LaPenta could be described as an equine version of “The Odyssey,” as the gods gaveth and tooketh away. It all started when War Pass captured last year’s Champagne Stakes (gr. I) and Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) to nail down the Eclipse Award for 2-year-old male. Those victories ended a frustrating period for Zito, which began when the five horses he saddled (for five different owners) in the 2005 Kentucky Derby all finished out of the money. He did manage to win the Whitney Handicap (gr. I) with Commentator that summer, but that was followed by an agonizing string of seconds and thirds in major stakes.
A discouraged Zito watched helplessly as his horses finished second or third in 18 grade I stakes over the next two years, including heartbreaking defeats by Sun King in the Metropolitan Handicap and Whitney, a gutsy second by Bellamy Road in the Travers, and a frustrating second by Wanderin Boy to a then-unknown Uruguayan import named Invasor in the Pimlico Special.
But Zito kept plugging away, waiting for his fortunes to change. The emergence of War Pass as a champion was followed by other top-class LaPenta-owned colts, including Cool Coal Man, Coal Play, Stevil, and finally Da’ Tara, as well as stakes winners Anak Nakal and Fierce Wind for Four Roses Thoroughbreds and the promising Paint for Len Riggio’s My Meadowview Farm.
On March 15, three weeks after Cool Coal Man’s victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), Zito and LaPenta were devastated when War Pass finished last as the 1-20 favorite in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III). LaPenta called it a “catastrophe,” and couldn’t believe how everything “went up in flames overnight.”
War Pass’ game second in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) seemed to have put the champ back on track for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, but the Derby dreams ended when the colt suffered a small fracture to his right front sesamoid. Cool Coal Man took over as Zito’s and LaPenta’s Derby horse, but the son of Mineshaft ran terribly in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby. Stevil finished fifth in the Preakness following a solid fourth in the Blue Grass, leaving Da’ Tara as the pair’s only remaining classic hopeful.
They were encouraged by his courageous narrow defeat in the Barbaro Stakes on Preakness day, and when Zito asked LaPenta “Are we crazy?” when addressing the question of running in the Belmont and he responded, “Look, we’re always crazy,” they had themselves a Belmont starter. Anak Nakal, meanwhile, was coming back to form slowly after a series of poor efforts following his victory in last fall’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II).
Ironically, the only two remaining classic colts in Zito’s once promising arsenal had finished first and second in their career debuts last Sept. 28, with Anak Nakal defeating Da’ Tara by a length as part of a 17-1 entry.
While Big Brown was dealing with his quarter crack issue and several missed training days, and Casino Drive was turning in a series of bizarre, slow works, Da’ Tara and Anak Nakal trained at Saratoga, not shipping down to Belmont until the Wednesday before the race.
After arriving, Zito galloped them on the training track and was thrilled with the progress both colts had shown. Identical in color, the strapping Da’ Tara was basically a larger version of the more refined Anak Nakal. While Anak Nakal went about his business in a professional manner, Da’ Tara was more the aggressive type.
“He’s on; I can tell you that much,” Zito said while watching the colt gallop June 5, his neck lathered from sweat. “You see how he trains. He’s got to be on the lead. That’s what he wants to do.”
Anyone who has ever been around Da’ Tara knew he had talent, but needed time because of his size. And his time was now.
“I felt in my heart if he had a good, clean shot, he would get the distance and finish up strong,” said Johnny Collins, who gave Da’ Tara his early training at Charlotte Weber’s Live Oak Stud near Ocala, Fla. “I thought before the race if Big Brown leaves him alone and lets him get rolling, I know he’ll make it a horse race. This colt has such a super long stride and looked like he wanted to do it all day. His stride was twice as long as the horses galloping next to him, and he was as powerful as you could ask a horse to be. You knew he’d be a good horse down the line. He just needed time to mature.”
Every time Zito was asked why he was tackling the seemingly invincible Big Brown and the potential superstar Casino Drive, he responded. “You got to play the game.” He had answered the same way in 2004.
The day before the race, while Zito was sending his two colts to the main track starting gate to school, there was chaos at Big Brown’s barn, as hordes of media were shoulder to shoulder, trying to cram into the small area outside the fence. Security officer Juan Dominguez had to seek assistance as he attempted to restore some sense of order.
“I was with Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, and War Emblem, and this is way bigger,” he said. “This is out of control.”
That afternoon, hoof specialist Ian McKinlay placed an acrylic patch on Big Brown’s “perfectly healed” quarter crack and assured it would be a non-issue.
Scattered about the Belmont backstretch were the other Belmont starters, including Denis of Cork, third in the Kentucky Derby; Macho Again and Icabad Crane, the second- and third-place finishers, respectively, in the Preakness; and Wood Memorial winner Tale of Ekati, fourth in the Kentucky Derby.
On race morning, Casino Drive went for a gallop to test his injured left hind hoof and all seemed well until the colt returned to his barn and began favoring the foot, unable to place it down. He was immediately scratched by trainer Kazuo Fujisawa, sadly ending one of the most compelling and noble endeavors in Triple Crown history.
The day also didn’t start off very promising at the Zito barn. Assistant trainer and exercise rider Heather Stark had just returned aboard Anak Nakal and was taking a 2-year-old out to the training track when the colt began “messing around,” and fell over. Stark was caught under the horse and suffered a broken leg. Instead of getting ready for the Belmont Stakes, she had to spend five hours in the hospital getting a cast put on.
Kassem Masri, owner of Anak Nakal, did not look at the incident as misfortune, but a sign of good things to come. He told Zito, “You’re going to have a great day today.”
A stifling heat wave, with high humidity, rolled in overnight, enveloping the New York area in a blanket of haze. A water outage throughout most of the building made matters worse and forced women to use the men’s room. When the ultra-consistent closer Golden Doc A struggled home last of four starters in the Acorn Stakes Presented by Vitaminwater (gr. I), her trainer, Barry Abrams, blamed a lack of water on the track. No one contacted at the New York Racing Association could confirm whether the water outage affected the watering trucks.
With Casino Drive out, Big Brown was made the 1-5 favorite, with Denis of Cork, at 7-1, the only other horse in single digits. In the paddock, Zito told jockey Alan Garcia to go to the lead and “make a sprint out of it at the half-mile pole.”
Da’ Tara, as expected, broke on top and went right to the front. Big Brown, breaking from the rail, appeared to get distracted by the starter, who was wearing a dark blue jacket and white pants and standing on the racetrack. The starter thought it might have been the photographers on the stand behind him. But Big Brown began looking to the left as soon as the gate opened, his head cocked to the inside and body turned noticeably in the direction of the starter, who was standing well before the photographer's stand. Big Brown seemed to get rank just as he approached him, while still unbalanced. Desormeaux took a hold of him and then tried to come out around Da’ Tara, but Eibar Coa, on Tale of Ekati, would have none of that and moved in, keeping Desormeaux pinned down on the rail. The result of that minor altercation was some cuts suffered by Tale of Ekati.
By this time, Big Brown was on the muscle and getting ranker by the second. Desormeaux was able to find another seam behind Tale of Ekati and abruptly steered Big Brown out, bumping with Anak Nakal. Big Brown finally was free, but was extremely wide as he headed down the backstretch.
Meanwhile, Da’ Tara had gotten away with a :48.30 half, as he led by a length over Tale of Ekati, who had moved up along the inside. Tale of Ekati got to within a half-length down the backstretch, with Big Brown in perfect striking position right behind in third through three-quarters in 1:12.90. Passing the half-mile pole, Desormeaux began riding Big Brown and, shockingly, there was no response. This was the first sign the colt was in big trouble. The track had become deep and cuppy from the heat baking down on it, and it was obvious Big Brown was struggling over it.
Da’ Tara by now had opened a clear lead and kept extending it around the turn. When Denis of Cork ran right by Big Brown on his inside, it was the end of the favorite and the dream of a Triple Crown. Desormeaux, in melodramatic fashion, steered Big Brown abruptly toward the outside fence and began to ease him. The stunned crowd, with the memory of Eight Belles still fresh in their minds, began to think the worst. From that point on, Big Brown fought Desormeaux and looked like an angry horse as he was eased past the wire, his head jerking in all directions. Desormeaux said afterward he didn't feel as if the colt was injured in any way. He merely said it wasn't his day. If that's the case, it's a shame Big Brown wasn't allowed to at least finish the race with some dignity. It was a sad ending to one of the most sensational Triple Crown journeys of all time.
Da’ Tara, meanwhile, continued to distance himself from his rivals, drifting out from a left-handed whip before straightening himself out. He finished up under a strong hand ride, covering the 1 1⁄2 miles in 2:29.65. Denis of Cork continued his run to finish second, 2 3⁄4 lengths ahead of the dead-heating Anak Nakal and Ready’s Echo.
The victory was a special one for WinStar Farm, who bred Da’ Tara and stands Tiznow.
After the race, trainer D. Wayne Lukas came walking briskly through the tunnel looking for Zito to congratulate his old Triple Crown rival.
While Zito and LaPenta celebrated the victory, Stark was watching on TV in the barn office by herself.
“I was just hobbling around screaming my lungs out,” she said. “I then tried to hobble over to the test barn to meet everybody. I watched him going to the gate all lathered up, and then for him to win like that was unbelievable. He’s a beast, that horse; he’s a monster. He was a big, overgrown baby at 2, and he’s matured a lot and filled out.”
Zito headed back to the barn a short while later, stopping along the way to talk to well-wishers and do more interviews. “I salute Big Brown; he’s still a champion, but he wasn’t himself today,” he said.
Zito also took great pride in the fact he had insisted LaPenta not put Da’ Tara in a 2-year-old sale, as has been LaPenta’s practice. “He was just too big,” Zito said. “It would have been a disaster to sell this horse. I told Bob, ‘You’ll kill me, but this horse will never go to the sale.’ ”
Back at the barn, Zito told Da’ Tara’s exercise rider Dylan Armstrong: “We had the last laugh today, because we keep trying. They kicked my ass a million times, but we bounced back. You got to keep trying. Henry Ford failed five times; Coca-Cola failed three times; Wrigley’s chewing gum failed twice. For 2 1⁄2 years, they beat us in grade I after grade I, but we kept trying.”
When LaPenta showed up, he went right over to Zito, gave him a hug, and asked, “Did this really happen?” Zito replied, “You did it. You finally won a classic.”
A short distance away, another scene was being played out, as Dutrow and IEAH co-president Michael Iavarone were trying to come to terms with what had just happened. The following day, Iavarone still was unable to watch a replay of the race, and not because he felt badly for himself or for being deprived the glory of sweeping the Triple Crown.
“I just felt so badly for the horse,” he said. “When I went back to see him after the race, I put my arms around him for a good minute and he just rested his head on my shoulder. When he was walking back I pointed out to Rick that he was swishing his tail nonstop, which is a sign he was angry. I was on the track earlier after Benny the Bull won (the grade II True North Handicap) and I couldn’t believe how deep and soft the track was. I think there were several things that got him beat. I think he hated the track; he was bucking and kicking and acting up in the holding barn; he was sweating between his legs before the race, which he never does; and he got too rank early.”
So, why was a horse that had previously been as close to perfect as any in memory suddenly so imperfect on this one day...the biggest of his life? When it comes to the Triple Crown, it seems as if individual forces have conspired against those attempting to achieve racing’s greatest honor. In Big Brown’s case, it took multiple forces to get him beat.
That brings to a close another Triple Crown and another memorable New York moment for Nick Zito. But in the end, it was about Big Brown, whose amazing feats will live on long after the painful memory of his Belmont.