If you want a sure sign of how deeply the recession is cutting around these parts watch the New York Racing Association's preparations for what may well be one of the biggest days in its history Saturday. The cash strapped institution, faced with the potential elimination of its very franchise to conduct thoroughbred horseracing in New York, is running Big Brown's Triple Crown bid on a shoestring. The comparison with the last attempt to sweep racing's greatest challenge by Smarty Jones in 2004 is sobering. The relentless promotions and lavish galas that surrounded what was expected to be a "Smarty Party" have devolved into arguments about steroids, animal cruelty and whether Big Brown's trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. should be more respectful of the competition.
I was unprepared for my reaction in 2004 when Birdstone surged past Smarty Jones in the final yards of the 2004 race. Tears of joy unexpectedly welled in my eyes. The horses had decided the outcome when it came down to the running of the race, not the thousands of pundits that had declared it "no contest" before they even went around the track. Seeing conventional wisdom and the supposed infallibilty of the people who view horses' performances only in terms of numbers flouted so irretrievably was a moment of spiritual clarity that only those who work hands on with these magnificent animals day in and day out usually get to experience.
The predictions are more guarded this time around, but Big Brown just has that look about him, the champion's demeanor. He faces a field in the Belmont that includes several horses with a realistic chance to improve enough to win the race, but the fact remains that the only race in which Big Brown has ever had to reach inside himself for something extra was the Kentucky Derby. He projects the sense that we might not have seen his best race yet. At a time when the game itself is under siege a great horse emerging to win the Triple Crown would go a long way toward reestablishing some semblence of horse racing's glory days. It's a good thing the horse doesn't know how much more than his own ability to conquer Belmont's mile and a half is riding on his back this Saturday.