Friday, April 18, 2008

Big Brown, Number One With A Bullet

CLIFTON PARK, NY---Knowing that she was extremely fortunate to get a window table on Florida Derby day, the first thing Andrea DeLong noticed were the brown hats. More specifically, the Big Brown hats. They were everywhere.

DeLong also was aware that the IEAH ownership group, about half a million strong, or so it must have seemed, were seated all around her. Minority partner Paul Pompa Jr., not without his people, was there, too. It was a scene right out of “The Attack of the Big Brown Hats,” coming to a Kentucky Derby prep near you.

It wasn’t long before DeLong, who owns a production company and is an analyst on the Capital Off-Track Betting television network, noticed there was something outer worldly taking place around her, something magical, almost mystical.

The Florida Derby was six hours away but that didn’t stop the IEAH crew and trainer Rick Dutrow from enjoying their morning immensely. It’s not every day you win a $2-million race before lunch. But there was Benny the Bull, roaring down the straight, winning the Golden Shaheen at a racetrack in the desert a half-world away from Hallandale Beach.

Dutrow won a second seven-figure race in Dubai with Diamond Stripes, an older, multiple stakes winner. Diamond Stripes is a good horse but one that couldn’t keep pace with Big Brown in their company workouts as the three-year-old was preparing to make an unlikely leap from one-turn preliminary allowance winner to nine-furlong Grade 1 performer--from post 12 at Gulfstream Park, which never happened before.

“There were all these people around me…” DeLong remembered. “There was Dutrow’s morning, the Adena filly [Shirley Jones winner Sugar Swirl], the Eltish filly [Bonnie Miss winner She’s All Eltish]; everyone kept going down to the winners’ circle all day long. I started thinking how cool would it be if [Big Brown] won, too?”

From her first visit to Saratoga Race Course, DeLong wanted to be a racetracker. A communications major at Ithaca College, she wound up doing an apprenticeship with steeplechase training legends Jonathan Sheppard, Tommy Voss and Charlie Fenwick Jr., among others.

“I started with show horses but really wanted to be a steeplechase rider. It didn’t take long to realize that wasn’t going to happen. But I did ride at Marlboro in Maryland and rode in a lot of ARCA races [for amateur riders] for fun.”

In 1998, DeLong moved to Long Island and began exercising horses for Tom Skiffington, Wayne Lukas, Jimmy Toner and John DeStefano, later becoming DeStefano’s assistant. She also worked for Todd Pletcher and was a free-lance rider before returning upstate to open her production company.

As post time neared for the Florida Derby, DeLong went down to the walking ring to get a closer look at the subject of all those brown hats. “When [Big Brown] walked into the paddock the place went crazy,” she said. “The crowd started to cheer in sections as he walked by. It was the kind of excitement you feel just before the Derby or the Travers.

“He made you [want to bet on him]. He gives you confidence. He was pumped up and on his toes but there was a calmness about him. His demeanor just exuded something that certain horses have.”

Big Brown left from the 12 slip quickly but with the calmness and control he showed in the walking ring. His forward momentum found him three across the track at mid-first turn, then second, then first as the field straightened away into the backstretch, “loping like a gazelle through a meadow,” rider Kent Desormeaux would later say.

“I looked at the horses, then at the fractions, looked back at the screen, then back at the fractions again. At the top of the stretch he was still going strong. Holy ….!”

After the IEAH and Pompa entourages made their way to the winners circle, followed by the Padua group, who ended this private Derby day ritual with Electrify’s track record win in an overnight stakes, there was much celebrating, champagne toasts and laughter, when someone said: “[Big Brown] should have his own song.”

“I like to be creative, take my mind off things, so the Wednesday after I got home I thought, why not?”

And so the marriage of racetrack lifer and communications major was consummated, producing “Big Bad, Big Brown,” the coolest horse in the whole damn town, to the tune of Jim Croce’s “Big Bad Leroy Brown.” DeLong recorded the ditty with her own lyrics and posted it anonymously on YouTube. To date it’s gotten over 1,200 hits.

“I sung bass in the church choir, but I’m no singer,” DeLong admits. “Did I need to do this? No. But this was once in a lifetime. The excitement just rubbed off on me. I did it for those who might like it, might enjoy it. I just hope people have a sense of humor about it.”

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Colonel John Lone Star of Major Prep Weekend

SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, April 6, 2008---In the overall, if youre Steve Asmussen or Rick Dutrow, nothing that happened on Saturday has you quaking in your boots. Although neither should dismiss Colonel John too quickly.

Eoin Hartys long-striding son of Tiznow from the Turkoman mare, Sweet Damsel, a.k.a. the horse that runs too slow, was the only three-year-old performer Saturday that looked like a real Kentucky Derby horse.

Yes, yes, the first three finishers in Colonel Johns Santa Anita Derby were in a drive from the quarter-pole to the wire but it was the Colonels overdrive spurt and lengthy stride that made an indelible impression on what was the most important prep weekend of the year.

Next Saturdays Blue Grass Stakes will complete most of the rest of the picture, but the way this prep season has gone, we all had better assess the Lexington and Holy Bull, too. Its been that kind of season.
As previously stated, Im patient and forgiving when it comes to still developing three-year-olds. I think I now know enough to believe that not only is this group inferior to last years but, in the main, is beginning to look very undistinguished. Except for the handful at the very top.

While I number myself among those willing to line up against the visually impressive Pyro four weeks from now, I respect him for this: He always runs the same very good race. Credit his talent, consistency and Asmussens preparation. In the absence of demon speed, class is by far the best thing to have.

Big Brown, a.k.a. Big Bad, Big Bad Brown, the coolest horse in the whole damn town, does freakish things. As long as Dutrow, in his own words, stays out of his way, and the colts not compromised by quarter cracks, extreme greenness, or the plague, Big Brown might not face a horse that can warm him up, much less seriously challenge him.

Someone brought this up in a horse chat last week, but with everyone going gaga over Big Browns Florida Derby, how soon they forget Pyros Risen Star. Guilty as charged. But now that I think about it, Big Browns performance was more compelling. At times like these, a reliable stopwatch really comes in handy.

The first three out of the Wood Memorial ran well. And the slowest renewal since 1952 doesnt look nearly as bad when compared to the Grade 3 Excelsior for older horses run under identical conditions a half-hour earlier.

Tale Of Ekati needed almost all of 14 seconds to finish his final of nine furlongs after chasing early splits of :22.46 and :46.07 from very close range; too close thought trainer Barclay Tagg. Well, it took the gelded five-year-old Temporary Saint 13 seconds to cover the same ground after being left on his lonesome in :23.92 and :48.43.

War Pass was the three-year-old responsible for the fast Wood fractions and he was beaten only in the final few jumps. The horse that pressured him, Inner Light, finished last of nine.

Court Vision gives a good impression of the fast-finish suck-up that breaks your heart every year on Derby day. But hes not had even half a chance to win both of his starts this year. Part of it is his own doing; the rest is happenstance, and he does always come running late.

Court Vision may be slow but tries very hard, also not to be taken for granted. Garrett Gomez may not have had a good option the instant he wheeled him around a rival at the five-sixteenths pole, but the move came at the apex of the turn. Its impossible to win from there, especially when he was forced to labor in the deepish center of a drying-out strip.

The Illinois Derby looked like the ninth at Yonkers Raceway, Paul Moran said after watching the Hawthorne nine furlongs on the press box monitor. During the stretch run, another observer was heard pleading: Will someone please make a move?

The finish of the race was what Harvey Pack might have termed your basic five-speed number. No one ever moved. David Carroll expected his favorite, Denis Of Cork, to bounce on Derby day. Thats why he gave him extra time between starts.

But Carroll is new to speed figures. This was the race in which Denis was susceptible to react to his last effort, which apparently he did. But Denis Of Cork wasnt going to win the Illinois Derby, anyway.

There was no pace on in the Grade 2 event and no one ever challenged the winning leader. A horse like Denis Of Cork has no chance to rally successfully given that scenario on an oval that essentially plays like a bullring. His race looks like a throw-out the way War Passs Tampa Derby did. Further consider that Denis just might like Churchill the way Street Sense did.

Undeniably, Colonel John was the star of the weekend. He ran nine furlongs in 1:48.16, which until the data is processed, nevertheless looks like a forward move. And trip types must love the way he dug in despite veering out, then in, willing his way to the wire first.

Runnerup Bob Black Jack might have distance limitations but is extremely fast, and figure that Richard Migliore squeezed every ounce of speed out of him in a good performance by both horse and rider. Favorite El Gato Malo had a troubled start, rallied wide on the second turn, but essentially never fired. He may no longer be headed in the right direction.

So, what happens when Colonel John makes his dirt debut in the Kentucky Derby? Who knows, although there probably are easier spots to find out. But Harty has been to the big dance many times as Bob Bafferts assistant. He knows what to expect, except for that special pressure that goes with having your name inscribed on a track program.

And now, Pyro, lets see what youve got in Lexington on Saturday.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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Saturday, April 05, 2008

Slow Wood Fails to Clarify Derby Picture

SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, April 5, 2008---The champ is back, sort of. War Pass will still go to Kentucky as one of the favorites. Actually, thats not clear, either.

On a day that dawned sunny and mild, allowing a sealed muddy track to be upgraded to good at mid-card and fast by post time of the 84th Wood Memorial, War Pass was hustled to the front by Cornelio Velasquez, shadowed very closely by Inner Light.

That first quarter mile likely was the difference between victory and defeat for the odds-on Wood favorite. Inner Light, coupled with well regarded Court Vision, did his job as pace presser. The rabbit forced War Pass into early fractions of :22.46 and :46.07, demanding for any nine-furlong event around Aqueducts two turns, but especially so given the track condition.

War Pass was able to keep Inner Light at bay, but not winning Tale Of Ekati, who broke sharply beneath Edgar Prado and tracked the leaders through the backstretch run, three to four paths away from the fence, which appeared deeper and more tiring.

Prado moved the winner into serious contention leaving the half-mile pole, at that point the only horse within striking distance of an upset. In the following furlong, Garrett Gomez got Court Vision under way with a strong run on the inside, but altered course way out into the middle of the course approaching the five-sixteenths pole.

In the stretch, War Pass was still holding them off, he, too, now several paths away from the rail. I told (jockey Cornelio Velasquez) to drift off the fence because the rail was dead all day, later explained trainer Nick Zito. Im sad that we didnt winbut glad with the way he ran. We still have to salute the winner.

The victory by Tale Of Ekati didnt become clear until two jumps from the finish post. War Pass was toiling from his early exertions but Tale Of Ekati kept trying. It took a final furlong in a modest :13.92 to get the job done, 1:52.35 for the distance, the slowest Wood in 56 years.

The racetrack axiom is that if you run fast early you dont run fast late. That certainly was the case Saturday.

We were laying a little closer than I wanted him to be, said trainer Barclay Tagg, who now has two Derby contenders in Tale Of Ekati and Big Truck. But Edgar (jockey Prado) has an intuitiveness about him that has served pretty well for the last 30 years.

The drying out Aqueduct surface was demanding throughout the afternoon. It took a toll on most front runners as the track became drier. The best paths seemed to be three or four wide of the inside rail but the middle of the surface, five and six paths outside, seemed more demanding as deep closers were unable to finish off their rallies.

The jockey (Garrett Gomez) said he was slipping a bit on the track, said trainer Bill Mott of third finisher Court Vision. He dropped himself pretty far back and made a decent run to get third. It probably was strong enough to get him into the Derby starting gate, although thats not a certainty.

I would think we would go to Kentucky and evaluate from there, Mott said.

Well take him to Kentucky and take it one day at a time, Zito said of his juvenile champion. If War Pass has a good month, well see if we can make it to the Derby.

It didnt sound as if Mott or Zito were brimming with confidence in the moments following the Wood Memorial. And thats probably for good reason.

[Ed. Note: An assessment of the victories by Colonel John in the Santa Anita Derby and Recapturetheglory in the Illinois Derby tomorrow].

Written by John Pricci

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