Friday, April 25, 2008

What Big Brown Can’t Do Is Make You Rich

With all the questions surrounding Kentucky Derby 134, from the group’s generic performances figures, to the inexperience factor, the prep schedule factor and the synthetic track factor, perhaps the best way to solve the puzzle is through the prism of its most talented horse, Big Brown.

And here’s what Big Brown can’t do for you: He can’t make you rich on May 3rd.

Following Thursday’s final serious preparation for the Derby, trainer Rick Dutrow must have pinched himself. How could any horseman be this fortunate?

“I don’t know what to think, I don’t know what to say,” Dutrow admitted via cell phone, some eight hours after Big Brown worked five furlongs in :58 3/5 at his Palm Meadows winter headquarters.

“I want to tell everybody he’s a special horse. I’d love to, but I can’t. He’s going to have to prove it all over again, and he’ll have to prove it more than once.”

He’ll need to prove it three times in the near future if he wants to be as famous as Affirmed became 30 years ago. But that gets way ahead of a still developing story, a still developing and still inexperienced race horse.

When a fractured sesamoid was discovered in the left ankle of champion War Pass that will keep him out of the Derby, Big Brown’s job got a lot easier, or so it seems. But the declaration of War Pass does not address the historical challenges facing the Derby 134 favorite.

Comparisons have been made to Curlin, powerful enough by the end of last year to earn a Horse of the Year title but whose inexperience and lack of seasoning proved his undoing in Louisville. Like Curlin, Big Brown comes into the Derby off a three-race career.

On any level, comparisons are unfair because Curlin eventually proved it a lot more than once, beginning with his improbable re-rally in the Pimlico homestretch to deny Street Sense a potential Triple Crown bid.

Conversely, Big Brown has a slight edge in seasoning compared to the 2007 Horse of the Year. Big Brown, after all, raced at two, Curlin didn’t. Horses that race over a longer duration of time early in their careers gain the mental acuity to handle new situations.

No one knows for certain how any young horse will handle the Derby atmosphere. Paddocking helps to familiarize a horse with his surroundings, but no amount of schooling can replicate the Derby’s charged environment, with the possible exception of Oaks day.

When it comes to attitude, Big Brown already is special. When inside his Palm Meadows stall, call him Big Kid because of an attitude best described as playfully laid-back, like he believes he’s the coolest horse in the whole damn town. Remarkably, he goes about his job the same way.

“You had to see his workout this morning,” said Dutrow. “He looks like he’s doing the same thing every time, looked like he was going at the same pace he always does. To me, it was just unbelievable.

“I told Michele [exercise rider Nevin] to let him do what he wants but let him pick it up a little in the stretch. I told her I can’t believe he went that fast, he looked like he was just galloping along when he went past me.”

“After a work like that,” said Nevin to her boss, “this is the best I’ve ever felt on any horse.”

And so Big Brown has an exercise rider that never has felt like she did after working any horse, a rider who apologized after calling him the best horse he’d ever ridden following his allowance win and a trainer who still refuses to get in his colt’s way.

“I still haven’t come close to doing that,” before he tempted the racing gods with this: “There’s such good karma around the barn now that I can’t see how he can get beat.”

The fact they all get beat is a racing truism. The scenario for Big Brown’s defeat comes in the form of a hot pace. Even without War Pass, Bob Black Jack, Recapturetheglory and Gayego are quality speed. Then there’s the greenness he showed in the Florida Derby stretch, and a questionable ability to rate.

In the guessing game that is Derby 134, I have two theories. While not helpful in the uncharted territory of the Churchill homestretch, his greenness could be a function of the big kid just playing around. Clearly, no one was challenging at that point.

My other guess may have more merit. A replay of the Florida Derby’s first turn shows an under-control Big Brown as he joined the leaders at mid-first turn, before easing his way into second and eventually into the lead in :22 4/5 and :45 4/5.

At no time did Big Brown look or act like “run-off” speed. The fastest horse on performance figures by a significant margin, he just might be able to stalk the Derby’s leaders with the same high-cruising speed.

If then Big Brown is as good as he’s looked so far, he’ll win. If not, he won’t. But he continues to do freaky things and deserves his role as Derby favorite.

“He’ll be the favorite on Derby day, I can guarantee that. We’re a betting stable and we’ll make sure he’s the favorite,” said Dutrow earlier. Doesn’t sound like the usual brand of trainer-speak, or that you‘ll get rich betting his horse a week from Saturday.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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