Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Big Brown’s Options

(SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY - August 4, 2008) There appear to be three options for the owners of Big Brown. They can pretend his victory in the Haskell Invitational was first-rate and retire him immediately with some mysterious ailment. Or, they can wait a little longer, try him again in a Breeders’ Cup Classic prep and hope that he sharpens up. Or, they can run him back in the Travers17 days from now; he was, after all, a horse that appeared to need racing.

The Blood-Horse magazine’s Jack Shinar reported on the Belmont flop’s stretch run at Monmouth as “gritty,” and, by an optimist’s assessment, that’s as good a word as “steady.” But when a colt develops his $50 million price tag as a result of mach one acceleration, then the search for a Thesaurus is on.

Big Brown was the shortest price in Haskell history. His competition included no Grade I winners. The purse earnings of the six horses he faced were roughly half of what he had accumulated. Coal Play, the Mineshaft colt that finished second, had made $85,000. The Haskell was no Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“Earth to Chris” McCarron, when asked by the TVG announcers if Big Brown could run with Curlin, said, “Why sure he can,” reminding the viewers that the 2007 Horse of the Year finished third to Any Given Saturday the previous year. But a third against 3-year-olds in a crop that included Street Sense and Hard Spun leaves room for excuse. A victory in a mediocre time against the worst class in memory suggests that a proper comeback is still on tap.

Mystery has long been a component of stud service marketing. With hope a driving force in the Thoroughbred industry, it’s better for breeders to shrug their shoulders instead of sharing the truth. Big Brown won. Kent Desormeaux put his finger up. Rick Dutrow blew a sigh of relief, as if the clouds of doubt had cleared. But did they?

Veterinarians contend that the reversal of form in Big Brown isn’t connected to his withdrawal from steroids. In the post parade, the son of Boundary looked muscled and imposing. Returning to the winner’s circle, Big Brown shook his head in the same manner he did after Desormeaux pulled him in the Belmont. Yet, the similarities between pre-Belmont Big Brown and post-Belmont Big Brown are nil and none. Big Brown before was a horse with that could fly on a dime. This Big Brown can pick it up when called upon, but Desormeaux had better not wait too long.

Here, however, are the similarities, some of which are troubling. Big Brown doesn’t favor the rail and prefers to run outside of horses, not inside of them. Big Brown tends to drift out in the stretch, even when clearly unnecessary or stressed. Big Brown still hasn’t beaten any horse of true quality.

Perhaps the strength of a stallion’s competition isn’t a factor any longer in terms of the price that his owners can command at stud. It is old-fashioned thinking that relativity is a condition of assessment. The early retirement of horses takes place before they are given the chance to face older competition, run on different surfaces, carry weight or prove themselves over time.

A career resume like the one with which the gelding Lava Man retired is simply too risky for a full horse. What will prevent Lava Man from getting a wall plaque on Union Avenue is that he couldn’t win east of California. But, after 46 starts, we do know he could win sprinting or covering a distance, on grass, synthetic and dirt, and carrying up to 126 pounds.

Today, at 10:30 a.m., the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame salutes Manila, Inside Information and Ancient Title with enshrinement. They are three horses that were asked to do more than Big Brown will ever be asked to do. The issue, at hand, however, is what comes next for him.

Written by Vic Zast

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