Both came here chasing racing history and hinting at greatness. Big Brown was undefeated and trying to become the first horse in 93 years to win the Kentucky Derby off only three lifetime races. Eight Belles had ticked off four victories, emboldening her owner to run his spirited filly against the boys in the 134th running of America's greatest horse race.
When Big Brown entered the homestretch, seemingly finding a gear only seen on sci-fi rocket ships, the 157,000 people here to celebrate the beauty of thoroughbred racing roared because they were seeing something extraordinary. When Eight Belles emerged from a pack of horses in the stretch to give determined challenge, many checked their programs, "Was that really the filly?"
Big Brown hit the wire 4¾ lengths ahead of Eight Belles, and horse lovers could hardly be disappointed. But moments later, there was heartbreak. While Kent Desormeaux was galloping out the triumphant Big Brown, rubbing the big bay's neck in congratulations, Eight Belles fell to the ground.
Eight Belles had fractured both of her front ankles, according to the Churchill Downs veterinarian, Dr. Larry Bramlage, and was euthanized on the racetrack.
It was a tragic end to what had been 2 minutes and 1.82 seconds of scintillating racing punctuated by the bravura performance of Big Brown. For the past two weeks, the colt's trainer, Rick Dutrow, has sounded like Muhammad Ali before a big fight as he predicted victory.
Besides 19 rivals, Big Brown was trying become the first horse since the filly Regret in 1915 to pull into Churchill Downs so lightly raced. Big Brown had missed months of training because of sore hoofs in his front feet. He was breaking from the farthest outside post, No. 20, which had produced only one winner in Derby history — Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.
None of it, however, had fazed Dutrow. Almost as soon as Big Brown burst from the starting gate, you knew why. The big bay colt had run from the front in his previous victories, but Saturday he and Desormeaux glided unhurriedly outside five other horses.
"He truly was in a gallop to the quarter pole," Desormeaux said. "No distractions. No alterations in course. Just slide over."
Ahead of him, Bob Black Jack, Cowboy Cal and Recapturetheglory were leading the charge, but were hardly setting a challenging pace as the half mile went in 1:11.04. In the clubhouse, Dutrow and Big Brown's co-owner Michael Iavarone were puzzled.
"Is he too far back?" Iavarone asked Dutrow.
"He's perfect," Dutrow answered, though after the race he acknowledged that he was far more worried.
Desormeaux, however, was unconcerned.
"He was just galloping, floppy eared, off the bridle, cruising," he said. "I just left him alone and let him canter until I needed him."
As they entered the far turn, Desormeaux nudged Big Brown ever so slightly. "Whoosh," is how Desormeaux described his colt's reaction.
It was too early, however, to unleash him. Desormeaux let Big Brown pull him like a water skier around the far turn. Cowboy Cal, Recapturetheglory, Cool Coal Man — all disappeared behind him. "Big Brown just kicked in the afterburners, " said Recapturetheglory's rider, E.T. Baird.
Only Eight Belles had anything left in her tank to give chase. With a quarter mile to run in the mile-and-a quarter race, Eight Belles got within 21/2 lengths. Suddenly, Big Brown picked up speed and bounded away.
There was plenty of discussion afterward whether Big Brown was talented enough to become only the 12th Triple Crown champion. "He is the most talented I've ever been on," Desormeaux said of Big Brown, only the fourth favorite to win the Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979, including Street Sense last year. "This horse could win tomorrow if I needed him to."
Big Brown did not get to Dutrow's barn until January, after a majority share had been sold to IEAH Stables. At that point, he had won once, winning by 11¼ lengths in September on the turf at Saratoga.
"I just know it's absolutely unbelievable that he could make this race when he didn't even go to the track in the month of January," Dutrow said. "Just incredible. … this horse will overcome anything. He's just born this good."
When he was introduced as "Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Rick Dutrow," he looked to the ceiling and started clapping.
"Oh God," Dutrow said.