First, there was Big Brown's wonky shoe. Then came the congressional hearings, trainer suspensions and a much scrutinized turf test by none other than the reigning Horse of the Year.
In the six weeks since the Belmont Stakes, the Thoroughbred industry has had no shortage of hot-button topics to debate.
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Noticeably absent from much of the chatter, however, has been any discussion about the horse who actually won the final leg of the Triple Crown — and did so impressively at that.
Da' Tara, the upstart colt who spoiled Big Brown's Triple Crown bid, finally gets a chance to put himself in the forefront of racing fans' minds this Sunday when he makes his first start since his rousing Belmont triumph in the Grade II, $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga Race Course.
The 11⁄8-mile Jim Dandy is one of eight graded stakes races during the opening week at the Spa, which begins its 36-day meeting Wednesday.
Da' Tara may not be the unknown he was before he rolled to a 51/4-length victory in the Belmont, but his victory was greatly overshadowed by Big Brown's inexplicable last-place finish in an effort that has been partially blamed on — among other things — a loose shoe.
In facing a Jim Dandy field that is expected to include multiple graded-stakes winner Pyro and Preakness Stakes runner-up Macho Again, Da' Tara can prove he is more than just the horse who benefited from a star performer having an off day.
“We are all concerned with how competitive he'll be next time out after a horse runs a monster race like he ran in the Belmont,” Robert LaPenta, owner of Da' Tara, said during a national teleconference Tuesday. “We're hoping to see a good performance in the Jim Dandy. He likes being on or close to the lead, and we think he'll do pretty much the same thing this weekend.”
Although he had just a maiden win to his credit before the Belmont, Da' Tara had been earmarked early by trainer Nick Zito as a potential standout in the barn.
Zito picked out Da' Tara for LaPenta at the 2006 Fasig-Tipton August yearling sale. After LaPenta secured the son of Tiznow for $175,000, Zito pleaded with his owner — who often resells many of his purchases — not to put the colt back up for auction.
“We've bought a lot of horses over the last five or six years and unless they are hurt or something, we usually put a number on them and put them through the ring,” LaPenta explained. “But Nick loved this horse and said no matter what happened, we were not going to sell him. When he feels that strongly, you listen.
“He was a big horse, he looked good and had great breeding. Nick thought this would be his Triple Crown horse, but it just turned out our 2-year-old crop last year was amazing.”
Aside from a dismal ninth-place effort in the Florida Derby where he broke poorly, Da' Tara had been a decent if unremarkable runner for Zito this season.
The late-blooming dark bay colt began justifying Zito's faith when he finished second by half a length in the the Barbaro Stakes on the Preakness undercard.
“Hopefully he woke up in the Barbaro and proved he woke up in the Belmont,” LaPenta said.
With two wins from eight career starts, it would take a string of Belmont-esque efforts from Da' Tara to have any hope of overtaking Big Brown in the race for divisional honors.
But whether the public remembers it or not, he already has one emphatic bragging right over his rival.
“I think if Da' Tara could win the Travers (on Aug. 23) and be competitive in some of these Grade I races, I think he would certainly be a contender,” LaPenta said. “But right now I'd say Big Brown still has to be the favorite for that.”