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Big Brown breaks hearts of fans at Belmont Stakes

They came to watch history, but left disappointed.

Big Brown, the 3-year-old colt favored to win the elusive Triple Crown, let down thousands of fans when he finished dead last in his race at the Belmont Stakes Saturday.

A crowd of 94,476, the fourth largest in Belmont history, endured 90-degree temperatures, large crowds and bathrooms on the blink to see if Big Brown would be the first horse in 30 years to take home the prestigious title. Instead, Da'Tara ridden by jockey Alan Garcia finished first.

"It's big for Belmont, it's big for us and it's big from a historical standpoint," said racing fran Greg Roberts hours before the disappointing race.

Roberts drove from his home in Paris, Ky., to see the race. He and friend Adam Wolfe of Columbus, Ohio, donned brown T-shirts with the words "Vote Big Brown." He said they were prepared to sleep in the track's parking lot if Big Brown won and predicted that people would be "crying and hugging" if the horse took home the title.

Floral Park resident Jan Marino lives five blocks away from the racetrack and comes to the event every year with her husband John, but had yet to see a horse win the Triple Crown. This year she wore a straw hat with a horse figurine resembling Big Brown fixed to its top.

In the hours leading up to the big race, spectators enjoyed a number of festivities and placed bets on other races. To jump-start the day, kid-friendly activities, such as face painting and gladiator jousting, were available in the park area behind the track.

Conall McMahon, 9, of Levittown, L.I., beat his father, Frank, at the joust three times before moving on to rounds of miniature golf. It was the first time Frank McMahon had brought his two children, including his 5-year-old daughter Treasa, to the event.

He was surprised to see the number of child activities.

"I didn't realize it was so well-thought out for the children and the adults," he said.

By noon, the children's events were finished and it was the start of the day's races. Groups of men cheered during the races, checking their bets afterward. Beer flowed as friends picnicked on the grass outside and well-dressed men and women lunched on buffets indoors.

Basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, outfitted in a red and white jockey uniform, mingled among the crowd.

Meanwhile, a problem with the building's water pressure created havoc in the rest rooms when the toilets stopped flushing. One bathroom attendant said there was no water in the bathroom for hours, adding, "I had a nightmare afternoon, a nightmare."

Outside Belmont's gates, a group of about 50 demonstrators from the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protested the treatment of race horses and hoisted signs bearing the name Eight Belles, a race horse that died during the Kentucky Derby this year.

"These are supposedly the finest horses and the finest tracks and these horses are dying, too," said Kathy Guillermo, PETA director of research.

But just before 6:30 p.m., all attention turned to the track to watch Big Brown race. Spectators in grandstands rose to their feet and those at ground level pushed to the edge of the track.

The crowd cheered as the heavily favored horse entered the track. Some continued to cheer after the start of the race, but by the third turn it was clear: History would not be made that day.

Shortly after the race, Jan Marino and her husband started to leave the track. She removed her hat.

"You always hope for the best, but unfortunately..." she said before trailing off.

Her husband finished her thought: "I'm disappointed."

Reach reporter Katy Gagnon by e-mail at kgagnon@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300 Ext 174.

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