BELMONT PARK, N.Y. -- Everybody is an expert at the racetrack.
"Don't bet against the favorite to win this one," a seasoned trackgoer told me as I approached a betting window.
He wasn't referring to the big Stakes race, the 11th, that had drawn nearly 100,000 people to Long Island in the boiling heat on Saturday. This was the third.
I looked up at the screen and noticed that the odds on Smart Enuf, the number 8 horse, had dropped to 4 to 5. In the first two races, I had put my money on two underdogs to win, only to see them come in second, so I decided to heed this expert's advice.
"Two dollars on 5, to place," I told the teller. (I know what you're thinking, but with eight more races to go, I wasn't prepared to break the bank.)
As it turned out, it was a good thing that I changed my bet at the last minute before post time, because my horse, Seeking No More, did come in second, yielding me a $6.10 payout, which would be my only victory of the day. But the expert was wrong about heavy favorite Smart Enuf -- another horse, Piazza Di Spagna, wound up in the winner's circle.
It was an early reminder of the oldest rule in horse racing -- that there's no such thing as a sure thing. The lesson was hammered home in much more dramatic fashion five hours later, when the heavily hyped Big Brown became the 11th horse in 30 years to blow the Triple Crown on the unforgiving mile-and-a-half Belmont track.
AT FIRST, I was a bit reluctant to make the trek up to New York from Washington for the Belmont, let alone deal with the crowds and the sweltering heat for hours. Four years ago, I had been fooled, watching live as the 1 to 5 favorite, Smarty Jones, blew an opportunity to win the Triple Crown at the very end.
But this time seemed different. I watched what Big Brown did at the Kentucky Derby and at Preakness. It wasn't just that he won each race easily, by about five lengths, but that he seemed to be so relaxed.
Big Brown had waited patiently, keeping with the pack the whole race but biding his time, only to explode after the final turn, displaying incredible breakaway speed, and leaving the rest of the field in the dust. Having a cool demeanor is a must for the Belmont, because it is a quarter mile longer than the Kentucky Derby, and if the horse gets jumpy too early, it risks getting worn out down the stretch (which is exactly what happened to Smarty Jones).
Big Brown's Trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. wasn't winning many fans among the other trainers with a series of boastful comments leading up to the race. "He is by far the best horse in the race," Dutrow bragged last Tuesday. "I've seen him run and I've seen the other horses run. It's simple." Earlier, he had called a Big Brown victory a "foregone conclusion."
Dutrow brushed aside suggestions that his horse may not handle the distance, that the inside post position he drew would be a problem, or that he needed steroids, which had been administered before prior races. He also reassured everybody that a small crack in Big Brown's hoof was nothing to worry about. The horse's victory seemed more inevitable when the Japanese-bred Casino Drive, Big Brown's chief rival, was forced out of the race due to injury.
So I took the bait, and my friends and I were on the first Long Island Rail Road train of the morning out to Belmont. Before 11, we had set up folding chairs outside, right before the finish line, where we expected to watch history unfold in less than eight hours.
IT WAS a long day. The temperature at the track was hovering around 90 degrees, and the intense sun seemed to be locking its gaze right at our seats. I applied level 50 lotion to my skin, and I purchased a knockoff Belmont Stakes t-shirt for five bucks to cover my head and protect my neck from the fierce rays.
While the crowd was eager to see a Triple Crown winner, it didn't seem that people bonded with this horse as they did with Smarty Jones. I remember four years earlier, t-shirts were more popular, and fans waved Smarty Jones signs. Yet, as the horn sounded and Big Brown first walked on the track, I tried several times to no avail to start chants of "BIG-BROWN! TRIPLE-CROWN!"
With the odds at a ridiculous 1-4, and no way of making real money, I just decided to place $2 on Big Brown to save the winning ticket as a souvenir (I placed a separate $10 bet on the 12-1 Tale of Ekati to come in third).
When I first saw Big Brown in person, it seemed that something was a bit amiss. Although the horse was known for his Tiger Woods-like temperament, he looked jittery to me. As he walked by, about 20 feet way, he turned his head and body sideways.
Our positioning couldn't have been any better, as we were standing right in front of the starting gate. But given that we were on track level, we didn't have any elevation to see what was going on during the rest of the race, so watched on the screen, and looked at the board that displayed the order of the horses.
Based on what we were able to determine, it looked like Big Brown was running the perfect race, sticking in the top three positions for a mile, and, so we thought, just waiting for the right time to explode. As the second half started, I began to feel an adrenalin rush.
"It's just like Preakness," I said.
My brother Bruce, who had joined us, predicted: "When he starts to make a move, people are going to go nuts."
But nothing happened.
INSTEAD, BIG BROWN suddenly dropped off of the leader board. Da' Tara, a 38-1 underdog who Big Brown had beaten by 23 1/2 lengths the last time they faced, galloped past the finish line, followed by seven other horses. Then I looked down the track and Big Brown was trotting toward the finish, his head lifted up, as I looked on deflated.
All of the physical tests taken since the race have come back negative, and as of now there are lots of theories, but no actual explanation for what went wrong. Jockey Kent Desormeaux gave the simplest answer: "I had no horse."
We made our way to the exits along with the rest of the stunned crowd, hearing all sorts of tales. Somebody walking ahead of me said he was standing next to a man who had bet $40 on the longshot Da' Tara to win, earning a hefty payout of nearly $1,600.
We navigated through the picnic area, where people packed up their coolers and vendors tried to peddle Belmont t-shirts that they could no longer give away.
"Everybody so stupid," a man in a beige tank top hollered, tauntingly pointing at his head for emphasis. "Why nobody listen to me? I tell everybody, this horse was weak. It no have any stamina!"
If only I had been speaking to the right expert.
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