Big Brown and the Triple Crown

Business as usual?
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  January 30, 2009


Big Brown’s Top 10 excuses for not winning the Belmont
10 | Weather sucked.
9 | Track was too deep.
8 | Didn’t get my meds.
7 | Jockey wasn’t allowed to wear Hooters logo on pants.
6 | And he wouldn’t let me run when I wanted to.
5 | UPS van was supposed to pick me up on backstretch and give me a breather.
4 | Was just following trainer’s instructions — he said I could lope around the track and still beat this bunch, so I did.
3 | Didn’t want to end up like Eight Belles.
2 | Saving myself for $50 million breeding deal — how many mares is that?

And Big Brown’s #1 excuse for not winning the Belmont:

1 | Uh, what was in it for me?

I had my first dust-up with the Triple Crown racing gods 50 years ago. Tim Tam seemed to be their darling. He was the first three-year-old in 10 years to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and the Belmont looked to be at his mercy. He had a snappy name, just like Big Brown, the kind of name that befits a Triple Crown champion. He was owned by Calumet Farm, at that time the New York Yankees of racing stables. His competition was so middling that Lincoln Road, who’d finished second in the Derby and the Preakness, was still eligible for “non-winners of two other than maiden or claiming” races. And of the 11 horses who’d already won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, eight had added the third. Only one had actually lost: Pensive in 1944, collared by the aptly named Bounding Home and beaten a half-length. Neither Burgoo King (1932) nor Bold Venture (1936) made the Belmont, each falling victim to injury after the Preakness.

The sole cloud on Tim Tam’s horizon was Cavan, winner of the major Belmont prep race, the Peter Pan. The bettors couldn’t see it: Tim Tam went off at 3-20. And, like Big Brown, he seemed poised to make the winning move as they headed for Belmont’s far turn. Then, before a disbelieving crowd of 44,000, he limped home, six lengths behind Cavan. He had cracked a sesamoid bone in his right foreleg; he never raced again.

That was the beginning of horse racing’s Triple Crown blues. Starting with Tim Tam and including controversial 1968 Derby winner Forward Pass (on the butazolidin disqualification of Dancer’s Image), 21 horses have gone to the Belmont post with a chance to win the Triple Crown, and only three — Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977, and Affirmed in 1978 — have found the winner’s circle. They’ve run the full gantlet of the agony of defeat. In 1961, Carry Back’s come-from-behind style suggested he’d be even better in the mile-and-a-half Belmont than he’d been in the Derby and the Preakness, but he staggered home seventh — turned out a mile and a quarter was as far as he wanted to go. Forward Pass prompted mixed emotions — his Triple Crown would have worn an asterisk, so some were relieved when he didn’t go past Stage Door Johnny. The following year, Majestic Prince was, like Big Brown, undefeated. How could he lose? Try sitting six lengths behind your main rival, Arts and Letters, after an opening six furlongs in a glacial 1:16 and change. (And that with one of America’s best jockeys, Bill Hartack, aboard.) At the finish, Majestic Prince was still almost six lengths back.

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