It’s still the most vivid memory I have of the last Triple Crown attempt.
Rick Dutrow, dress shirt soaked in sweat and stuck to his back, shuffled silently behind the defeated Big Brown as they headed to the drug testing barn.
A woman’s voice from the exhausted, grouchy, confused crowd of 94,476 at Belmont Park fired this shot at Dutrow: “You broke the horse!”
There were plenty of people rooting against Big Brown that day. Nothing against the horse, mind you, who was merely a pawn in an operation that stunk to high heaven.
But if he had won the Triple Crown, there would’ve been no end of hand-wringing over his human connections finding their way to the most exalted position in the centuries-old Sport of Kings.
That won’t be a problem this time.
California Chrome’s owners, trainers, jockey and handlers are lovable and interesting and make for a great story, one that many believe will serve as a means of pumping new life into thoroughbred racing.
As the refrain goes, racing needs a Triple Crown, and if this is the one it gets, all the better, because people are rooting for this horse, without reservation, unlike in 2008.
If California Chrome wins the Triple Crown in the 146th Belmont Stakes on Saturday, it will be well-earned and well-deserved. It’ll be a glorious, transcendent achievement in sports with the potential to not only cast racing in a badly needed positive light, but draw in new fans.
People who never pay attention to racing will do so this week, aided by NBC Sports doubling up its coverage in anticipation of what would be just the 12th Triple Crown ever and the first in 36 long years, since Affirmed in 1978.
That’s a good thing.
But racing has reached a new low in desperation if it truly “needs” a Triple Crown to “save” it.
I don’t believe that to be the case, just as I don’t believe the impact of a Triple Crown will be as significant as some believe it will.
So, what can Crown do for you?
Big Brown was named in honor of owner Paul Pompa Jr.’s close ties, through his trucking company, to UPS.
Michael Iavarone and Richard Schiavo of International Equine Acquisitions Holdings bought majority interest in the colt in time to ride him through wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. You don’t hear about IEAH anymore. Dutrow is serving a 10-year suspension for repeated drug violations.
The big story leading up to the Belmont was a quarter crack that threatened to derail Big Brown, and the big story after he ignominiously lost, was . . . well, no one has ever bottled the answer on that one to the satisfaction of everybody.
Big Brown missed training because of the quarter crack.
Big Brown was miserable in the race-day detention barn.
Big Brown was off the steroids (albeit legal at the time) that Dutrow admitted were a regular part of his horses’ drug diet.
He nearly lost a shoe in the Belmont, and it sort of nailed itself back in place as he ran on it.
The list goes on and on. We’ll never know.
But, as much as racing wanted a Triple Crown, there was a collective sigh that the drought wasn’t ended by . . . those guys.
The Triple Crown people are wearing the white hats — literally, in the case of co-owner Steve Coburn of Dumb Ass Partners — this time.
They’re making all the right moves, including the suggestion, by trainer Art Sherman, that California Chrome probably will run as a 4-year-old. Jockey Victor Espinoza even wore a Mats Zuccarello New York Rangers jersey to a media luncheon on Tuesday.
It’s all good.
California Chrome is getting plenty of widespread mainstream media attention already, and if he wins, you can ratchet that up several more notches.
But how much long-term impact will it have?
California Chrome will be celebrated for all the right reasons, and racing can use all the good publicity it can get.
I just think fans should be careful not to get their hopes up and assume that one
horse is enough to solve everything that’s wrong with racing.
For one thing, it’s difficult to get attached to the stars, most of whom twinkle to black so quickly because there’s so much economic pressure to hustle successful horses to the breeding shed before they’ve fleshed out a memorable racing career.
If California Chrome wins, it’ll be a great story and an incredible moment worth savoring forever. That’ll be plenty enough for me.