Tragedy and Triumph at the Derby

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Matthew Stockman / Getty

Kent Desormeaux, riding #20 Big Brown, leads out of turn 4 durinng the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 3

The beauty of the Kentucky Derby is the potential for its winner to become a legend. You won the Indy 500? Congrats, but we'll forget your name in two weeks (unless it's Danica Patrick). Even in NASCAR, as the interminable season rolls along, the Daytona 500 winner can become just another stat. But in thoroughbred racing, despite any flaws the Derby winner might have — and no matter how insane it is to ask a horse to pound itself like that, three times, over a month — there's always the possibility that this could be the one, the first horse to win a Triple Crown since Affirmed did it back in '78.

Big Brown, who charged down the stretch to win this year's Kentucky Derby by 4 3/4 lengths, is this year's hope. But despite the horse's Triple Crown promise, and the compelling story of its trainer, this year's Derby offered no beauty. In fact, it was downright ugly.

For the second time in three years, a fatal injury marred a Triple Crown race. But unlike Barbaro, the '06 Kentucky Derby winner who fractured an ankle during the Preakness, and was euthanized eight months later, Eight Belles never had a chance. Beaten out only by Big Brown in her race to become the first filly to win the Derby in 20 years, Eight Belles broke both of her front ankles while galloping right after the race. It was a freak injury that had the vets scratching their heads. While Big Brown's owners and trainer jumped for joy, Eight Belles sat sprawled along the dirt. She was euthanized on the spot.

Horse racing, a struggling sport, can't catch a break. Another debate will rage in Eight Belles' wake. Is horse racing inhumane? Can those skinny legs really support a thoroughbred's body, which is basically a machine, during a race? Keep this in mind: Eight Belles broke down after the finish, not in the heat of the race like Barbaro. It was just freak accident, and can't be comfortably used to condemn the sport.

Even if comparisons to Barbaro are certain to come, don't expect Eight Belles to grip the nation in the way that the '06 Derby winner did. First off, Eight Belles died right away, a tragedy or blessing, depending on your view of euthanasia. Barbaro's eight-month ordeal, with all the operations, moments of hope, and near-death experiences, kept his well-wishers rapt. Horse-lovers will mourn for Eight Belles, but there will be no prolonged candle-light vigils.

And here's an ugly truth: Eight Belles didn't win the race, and in America's winners-only culture, second-place finishers fade quickly from memory. Barbaro took the Derby, and had a strong shot at the Triple Crown. When he pulled up at the Preakness, people had so much more invested in him, emotionally and perhaps monetarily, that the grief just flowed. Eight Belles, we hardly knew ye.

Yes, this year's Triple Crown season now has a permanent pall. At least we'll get to know Rick Dutrow Jr., Big Brown's trainer, whose story could brighten the edges of the cloud. In horse racing, sometimes the humans are more compelling: how can you not root for a guy who, a decade ago, was homeless, sleeping on a cot in a New York City racetrack barn? Okay, Dutrow, 48, may not be the most likeable guy. He talks smack: Dutrow committed blasphemy by saying the Derby "is not a tough horse race." He pretty much guaranteed that Big Brown would win. But give him full credit for backing it up.

Oh yeah, he's been suspended from racing several different times for possessing or using marijuana. Plus, he is a serial horse doper, having been fined or suspended at least once every year since 2000 for giving horses banned substances. And he's one of those guys who calls everybody "babe." Love him or hate him, he's a character that makes you care.

His horse, Big Brown, is the real deal. The colt won the Derby in just his fourth career start, the first to do so since 1915. He's also just the second Derby winner to take the race after starting from the dreaded No. 20 post, the gate furthest from the inside of the track. Most horsemen consider that spot a disadvantage, since the horse must start faster to get good position. The last horse to win from No. 20: old Clyde Van Dusen, who did it 79 years ago.

"We're ready to roll," Dutrow says. The Triple Crown season started with tragedy. Let's hope Big Brown ends it with history.