There's No Joy in Big Brownsville

The staff at Southgate Coins rooted for a horse to win the Triple Crown and to become America's new hero. Find out what happened...

There's No Joy in Big Brownsville

By Rusty Goe

Everyone loves a hero. It’s inherent in human nature. Our heroes lift us to higher levels of consciousness as we vicariously experience their exploits with them, and they appeal to that instinctual desire in us to root for a winner.

Heroes come from all genres: comic book characters such as Superman, Batman, and Spiderman, central figures from classic literature such as the Lord of the Ring’s Aragon, and the great athletes from the field of sports. From whichever category our heroes emerge, they give us reason to shout and scream with delight as they conquer their enemies and defeat their competition. It’s difficult to imagine a world without heroes. Life would be … well it would probably be a lot more boring.

It would be great if our heroes were political leaders—like the president for instance. Or if they were military officers or intelligence agents, which quickly would win wars and round up all the terrorists in the world. But since this rarely ever happens, we search for our heroes in other venues, such as the ones mentioned above.

I remember back in 1973 when I was in my early twenties how there were rumblings of an oil crisis and our nation seemed poised on the brink of a recession. We were embroiled in the most unpopular foreign war in our nation’s history, and when someone leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, which exposed the top-secret history of U. S. involvement in Vietnam, and detailed a record of public deceptions, citizens felt betrayed. President Richard Nixon attempted to don a hero’s cape by announcing the suspension of U. S. offensive action in Vietnam, but much to everyone’s dismay, the war raged on. Hero-status eluded Nixon and he was even denied the honor of seeing the war end during his administration as he prematurely resigned from office to avoid impeachment. Doom and gloom pervaded a bewildered nation all through 1973. We longed for a hero to elevate us out of our cynicism and pessimism.

For many of us, the sports world delivered a heroic figure to temporarily take our minds off our woes. His name was Secretariat, a thoroughbred racehorse, nicknamed “Big Red,” because of his beautiful chestnut-colored coat. We watched him win the first two legs of horseracing’s Triple Crown, and then on June 9, 1973, cheered him on as he completely demolished his competition by a country mile (well, 31 lengths anyway). We not only got to cherish that moment, but we’ve been able to relive it every time we’ve heard his name over the past 35 years.

Today’s Twentysomethings really need a hero figure too. After all, they like everyone else in the country, are dealing with fallout from an unpopular war, disenchantment over sneaky (remember “Tricky” Dick?) politicians, and distressing inflationary pressures.

Today’s youthful population has its celebrities such as Carrie Underwood, the Jonas Brothers, and Justin Timberlake to divert its attention from troublesome times, and it has its popular video games, its iPods, and its text messaging to turn to for solace. And then there are the American Idols who come into their homes via TV every week that allow every young person to dream of his or her own potential stardom. But none of the above inspires the senses as would a bona fide hero.

Up until last Saturday, June 7, 2008, I, and millions of other people across the country thought a new hero was about to be crowned. Just as it happened 35 years ago, a horse had become the nation’s object of adoration. The horse’s name is Big Brown, a moniker matter-of-factly derived from one of its owner’s first impressions from which he concluded that the horse was big and that he was brown in color.

Big Brown arrived at last Saturday’s Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York, appearing like the first candidate in many years to equal Secretariat’s feat of demolishing the competition and winning the Triple Crown (two other horses, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978 won the Triple Crown, but didn’t match Secretariat’s Belmont tour de force). I thought it was the perfect scenario to introduce the young twentysomething girls employed at our coin shop to a hero figure.

Southgate Coins waits to see if Big Brown wins the horse race

Just as I’ve done on many occasions over the years, I shared human-interest stories about this particular horse race with Amy and Maya in an attempt to rouse their enthusiasm. I told them about Secretariat’s moving-like-a-tremendous-machine performance, and about other horses along the way that had tried and failed in their Triple Crown bids. I told them about the tumultuous life of Big Brown’s trainer, Rick Dutrow, and about how Big Brown’s jockey, Kent Desormeaux, lost his previous Triple Crown bid by a nose aboard Real Quiet ten years ago. To really get them fired up I gave the girls their own official Big Brown caps and buttons, and I mentioned something about taking our whole crew out to dinner if Big Brown won.

Southgate Coins employees display their Big Brown commemorative hats and buttons

To top off the day’s festivities we gave the girls yummy brownies baked by the wife of one of our good friends and customers ("Brownie" is Big Brown’s nickname after all).

So, by the time we closed the store at 3:00 o’clock and gathered around the TV to watch the activities at Belmont Park, everyone’s interest levels were pretty high.

Southgate Coins employees prep for the Belmont Stakes

My wife Marie, who has experienced many such events with me over the past 26 years, and has seen heartbreaking defeats of other horses bidding for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes, could barely watch this time because she didn’t want to witness another gut-wrenching outcome. I occupied my time by snapping pictures of everyone.

Finally, at 3:30 the race began and the 90,000-plus fans at Belmont Park, along with millions of TV viewers, let out a tremendous roar of excitement. Would Big Brown take an early lead? Would he bide his time, in second or third position, and then shift into turbocharged gear and race on into immortality? We would know in about two minutes.

All of a sudden, the track announcer shouted that Big Brown had pulled up. The superhorse everyone had grown to admire and to extol not only wasn’t going to make a race of it; he didn’t want to run anymore. Kent Desormeaux wisely quit whipping him and allowed Big Brown to slow to a canter as the other eight horses charged far past him. With practically no one paying attention to the frontrunner in the race, Da' Tara cruised to victory at 38-1. Everyone else—except Da’ Tara’s connections—had their eyes on Big Brown, mostly concerned that he was all right.

Amy, Maya, and Marie watch the Belmont Stakes at Southgate Coins

Marie’s premonition had come true. She didn’t want to watch the race, because as much as she wanted Big Brown to win, deep down inside she believed otherwise. Her eyes welled up with tears as I’m sure did Kent Desormeaux’s eyes, his wife’s, his kids', and a multitude of other people’s who wanted so desperately for Big Brown to become the nation’s reigning hero.

Sadness at the coin shop: Big Brown loses the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown

I’m sure that even UPS’ corporate officers had knots in their stomachs as their company stood to greatly capitalize on Big Brown’s fame, since this transportation giant is also known as Big Brown, because of the company’s fleet of trucks painted that color.

Well it was another good attempt and everyone had some fun along the way. But the nation still doesn’t have a hero. Oh, of course all of our troops in combat are heroes, as are the firemen and other damage-control personnel, who risk their lives every day to protect the rest of us. And there are many other silent heroes that no one will ever hear about, who are deserving of our recognition. But we’re talking about a national hero, the kind that rallies the whole country together, the kind that people discuss in front of water coolers, the kind that people remember decades into the future, and the kind that at least for a moment in time lift us into a realm separated by an invisible line between reality and myth. Big Brown might have been this kind of hero. But we’ll never know.

The race is over and for whatever reason, Big Brown lost. This type of competition—the Triple Crown—is only open to three-year-old horses, so this was Big Brown’s one and only chance. And even if he were capable of winning his next 15 or 20 races and recapturing the nation’s adulation, he won’t get the chance because his owners decided not to race him after this year, since he’s worth more as a breeding stallion than he is as a racehorse. So Big Brown will soon become a forgotten name to most of the fans who cheered him on this season. That’s the fate of “almost-heroes.”

And for now, there’s no joy in Big Brownsville. For those of us who are hankering for a hero our mantra remains, “Wait till next year.” But at least Amy and Maya have souvenir Big Brown caps and buttons; and maybe they have just a little more experience in how to prepare themselves to root for the next potential hero that comes along. Everyone deserves at least one hero to remember in her lifetime.