Hard toward the finish, with giant strides propelling the plain but powerful Big Brown to victory in the Kentucky Derby by 43/4 lengths, the moment should have belonged entirely to the winner and his jockey, Kent Desormeaux, who was capturing the race for the third time.
But now their names will be linked always to the filly, Eight Belles, who was runner-up to Big Brown, then lost her life after collapsing with two broken ankles while slowing down once the race had ended.
Eight Belles was euthanized on the track near the seven-eighths pole, on the far side of the turn near the start of the backstretch where she fell with her rider, Gabriel Saez.
The filly suffered compound fractures, according to Dr. Larry Bramlage, on-call veterinarian for the American Association of Equine Practitioners.
"There was absolutely nothing you could do," Bramlage said.
Saez said that after the wire, after he stood up in the irons as jockeys do when they begin to ask their horse to slow down beyond the finish, "she started galloping funny and I tried to pull her up, but she went down."
As this 134th Kentucky Derby went into the books a story of triumph and tragedy run before the second-largest Derby crowd ever -- 157,770 -- Desormeaux said he was "deeply sympathetic" with the filly's owner, Rick Porter, and trainer, Larry Jones.
It could not have been lost on anyone at Churchill Downs that of the 19 others in this Derby who tried to outrun, outgame and outdo the very fast Big Brown, the only one close to him at the finish was the filly.
Third-placed Denis of Cork was 31/2 lengths behind the filly; fourth-placed Tale of Ekati was 23/4 lengths behind Denis of Cork; it was three-fourths of a length back to Recapturetheglory in fifth.
Big Brown accomplished his winning race in 2:01.82. As the 2-1 favorite, he returned mutuels of $6.80, $5 and $4.80. He is owned by IEAH Stables and Paul P. Pompa Jr., and he was named for Pompa's business connections with UPS.
"Big Brown showed up," declared his trainer, Rick Dutrow Jr., with a hint of I-told-you-so in his voice after the race.
From the time of Big Brown's arrival at Churchill Downs on Tuesday, Dutrow had been crowing pridefully about the fast son of Boundary and how nothing in this race could beat him.
His confidence was so great that he and the owners chose post position No. 20, the far outside, when they had four other choices with the 16th pick in the selection process.
From that difficult No. 20 post that had seen only one winner in Derby history (Clyde Van Dusen, 1929), Big Brown settled about his business when the field broke, cruising across the track to gain fourth in the first quarter-mile.
Bob Black Jack led the way and would lead the field through the first three-quarters of a mile. Cowboy Cal stalked the leader and Recapturetheglory raced in third.
For Big Brown, the trip was uneventful and beautifully executed. Desormeaux said Big Brown just slid over into fourth position going past the stands for the first time, comfortably in cruising speed, never having to extend himself in order to gain position.
Two horses passed him, leaving Big Brown in sixth position going down the backstretch. Trainer Dutrow said he got a bit nervous watching this event unfold. Desormeaux said he didn't even know how much horse he had in the tank, down the backstretch, because Big Brown was just cruising on his own, "just galloping, floppy-eared."
"That's how we were going and he added power to the stride when I needed it," Desormeaux said, "and when I needed him, I showed him the stick, and whoosh, he put me in a new position and I pulled him back and made him wait in his position."
Desormeaux said he made two key moves: the first going into the far turn, then another near the three-sixteenths pole. Unlike the average horse who usually has only one big move to give in a race, Big Brown leaped forward when Desormeaux asked, settled back into a cruise around the middle part of the far turn, then throttled forward when the jockey asked again.
As the colts leaned into the turn to try to get position for the run through the stretch, Big Brown moved to the front, Recapturetheglory shoved his head in front of Cowboy Cal and the filly moved up closer, right behind those three in fourth position.
The race was over for all but Big Brown and Eight Belles. The filly just kept pushing ahead until she was second behind Big Brown at the top of the stretch.
Big Brown surged ahead, widening his margin. Denis of Cork, who had come from 20th in the first three-quarters of a mile, shot into the picture in the final furlong, gaining third at the finish.
Of Denis of Cork, jockey Calvin Borel said, "He ran a huge race. We saved every inch of ground we could just to get there. ... The colt ran his heart out, and I can't take nothing away from him."
This was the first Derby won by Big Brown's ownership and the first by his trainer, Dutrow. The colt's mastery of his competition was the hope for a better racing season ahead despite the loss of the only one of his group, the filly, who could get close to him on this day.
Big Brown walked off the track at Churchill Downs undefeated, owner of the $1,451,800 winner's share of the $2,211,800 Derby purse, and the first in 93 years to win the race in only his fourth career start. He accomplished this despite a history of cracks in his feet that Dutrow said were stabilized some time ago and are no longer an issue.
Despite all this, despite the fact that Big Brown so obviously is freaky good and talented, Dutrow did not appear as confident about the next leg coming up in two weeks, the Preakness Stakes, as he had about the Derby.
"I've got to say that his next race coming up is out of my hands," Dutrow said, "because it's coming back in two weeks. I'm not going to have a chance to train him. I'm just going to kind of play around with him.
"But the timing is not good for me. ... There's going to be some new horses. I don't know what post he's going to get, that kind of stuff. I don't think I'm going to feel as confident, because I really love training a horse for a race. I can't do it now. My hands are tied."
Before it's over, Dutrow might be taking a cue from Desormeaux. The jockey had done his job on the horse, won his third Derby, and now he was summing up the essence of Big Brown.
"Talent-wise, he's the best horse I've ever ridden," Desormeaux said.
20 Big Brown $6.80 5.00 4.80
5 Eight Belles 10.60 6.40
16 Denis of Cork 11.60