Big Brown Romps in Black-Eyed Preakness as Sport Licks its Wounds

ALBANY, NY, May 17,2008--It’s been a long, curious fortnight since Derby 134, which had more to do with the death of a horse than it did a star in the making, one whose talent is matched only by his great sense of timing.

Early in Preakness week, Mr. Gallup announced that after his minions went out to take country’s temperature, they found that 38 percent of the respondents wouldn’t mind if thoroughbred racing, and dog racing, for that matter, went on holiday and never came back. Ever.

Arguably, it could have been worse. It could have been George Bush-type numbers. The industry shouldn’t despair, however. It did take Bush II almost eight years to reach the negative 71 percentile.

PETA, with their outrageous charges against trainer Larry Jones and jockey Gabriel Saez, stopped short of playing the Hitler card that Bush used against Obama this week. In PETA’s defense, at least they’ve accomplished some righteous goals.
Two weeks ago here, the Capital Off-Track Betting Teletheater was jumpin‘ with not a seat to be had. But many in the Preakness crowd were disguised as empty tables. There was plenty of free parking, free Racing Forms, too, but energy, like Derby fans, were in short supply.

So either Big Brown failed to spark the imagination, or a lot of Gallup’s 38 percent live in New York’s Capital District, not likely since the during racing season Albany becomes a suburb of Saratoga. The sport has loyal fans in the Capital District.

Maybe Gallup’s 38 percent live near the real Capital, near 1600 Pennsylvania, because they certainly didn’t show up at Pimlico with a mind to set any handle records there. It was sunny and fast in Baltimore despite Friday’s deluge, with only one of four scheduled turf races lost. But early handle figures were off double digits, big-time double digits.

Filly fallout? What else could it be?

As Preakness day lengthened, fans began trickling into the Teletheater, slowly, and it felt as if a switch were being tripped, but it produced little more than a flicker, really.

The field for the Grade 2 Dixie was now approaching the starting gate as a national television audience tuned in to watch--what else--a roundtable discussion about how the industry can best protect its equine athletes.

The discussion began nearly three hours after a peaceful demonstration across the street from the Pimlico stakes barn was concluding. There would be another to follow, with more scheduled three weeks from now downstate at Belmont Park.

A Person for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said she was contacted this week by people from inside the racing industry supporting PETA’s goals, namely the end of two-year-old racing, a shorter season, and better control over both controlled and not-so-controlled substances.

And you know what you can do with those whips!

So it was up to Big Brown to save not only a Black-Eyed Preakness but maybe an entire sport, at least for the next three weeks.

If the Preakness performance doesn’t do just that, then maybe it’s time to turn out the lights because the party will be over. Big Brown was nothing short of sensational.

Kent Desormeaux made his second winning Preakness ride look a little stressful early, but very easy late. After breaking sharply, he settled the colt inside, the preferred tack when going around two Pimlico turns.

Big Brown wanted to go, and if there was anyone capable of staying close to him in those early stages, that would have had him right where they wanted him: How’s that Big Boy, here’s a little dirt for your face.

But Riley Ticker and Edgar Prado elected instead to deny Gayego what was becoming a soft lead. While they put some mild pressure on the leader, Big Brown, still under a half nelson from Desormeaux, was taken to the outside to sit just outside the pacesetters.

All were in their comfort zones now.

As the leaders curled into the far turn, Desormeaux let out a notch of rein and joined the leaders three abreast. Leaving the three furlong marker, Desormeaux, via his body language, communicated to Rick Dutrow and anyone else paying attention that he had the speed horses at his mercy.

At the point that Big Brown and Desormeaux straightened away into the lane at Old Hilltop--the same spot where he blew the Derby wide open two weeks ago--he laid his Preakness rivals to waste with what is becoming his patented electric kick.

When the opportunity presents itself, the Cajun Hall of Famer doesn’t wilt in the spotlight‘s glare. And so Desormeaux began showing off his “big horse,” gearing him down, sneaking peeks back, styling, and saving something for another undefeated rival laying in the weeds at Belmont Park.

At this moment, that colt, Casino Drive, is the second fastest three-year-old in America going long this year. His Peter Pan victory was frighteningly reminiscent to that of Coastal in 1979, who prevented Spectacular Bid from becoming the fourth Triple Crown winner of the decade, twelfth in history.

Since Affirmed in 1978, 11 three-year-olds have won the first two jewels in the crown. Big Brown makes it a dozen. A dozen for a dozen, on Affirmed‘s 30th anniversary. Nice symmetry, that.

So now maybe the sport’s business will turn around at Belmont Park in three weeks. Incomplete estimates from Capital OTB indicated they will be off about $200,000 in business from last year, $2.1 million to $1.9, excluding the finale from Pimlico.

But the very best of all is that the horses completed the course safely. Now, at a place they call beautiful Belmont, a sport might fight back from adversity on the big brown wings of a thoroughbred race horse.

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Preakness 133: A Handicapping Profile

1--MACHO AGAIN 20-1: Overcame wide and rough trip to win the Churchill’s Derby Trial at one mile, a race that has become somewhat fashionable as a Preakness prep, given its timing. While he did get jostled about in the G2 Lanes End, both his two-turn efforts have been wanting, giving the impression that one turn, and one mile, might be his best go. Wayne Lukas protégé Dallas Stewart owns a profitable 26 percent winning rate with horses seeking repeat wins. Give the colt this: He tries hard.

2--TRES BORRACHOS 30-1: Form has improved since getting off the synthetic surfaces, a common occurrence among horses with early speed. With not a lot of speed signed on here, he might get away in relatively soft fractions. He set a lively pressured pace in the Arkansas Derby--shadowed by Gayego throughout--and held very well for third, re-breaking after being passed by a would-be show finisher. Has been trained aggressively since then and appears to be responding. In-the-money finish not impossible here, especially given inside draw.

3--ICABAD CRANE 30-1: Unlike many of this year’s sophomores, he might be the only one to have won three starts on dirt while losing his lone synthetic try at Turfway Park. Significantly, one of those three victories came at Pimlico, the only Preakness starter with experience at “Old Hilltop.” Ridden by Jeremy Rose, who won this race with Afleet Alex in 2005, he is trained by another local hero, Graham Motion, who has Hall of Fame talent but has lacked a high profile runner. This isn’t that horse.

4--YANKEE BRAVO 15-1: The good news is that his development is first rate, never having taken a backward step in four career races, including a strong-finish third in the Louisiana Derby, his only dirt start. The bad news is that his performance figures are lacking, putting him in the same boat with all of these except the favorite, of course. He tried to match strides with Colonel John in the Santa Anita Derby but a premature move appeared to compromise his late kick. Six weeks fresh, significant improvement is expected.

5--BEHINDATTHEBAR 10-1: Was withdrawn with a leg filling by trainer Todd Pletcher. See him at the Belmont.

6--RACECAR RHAPSODY 30-1: Trainer Ken McPeek has been pushing all the right buttons, winning at a 23 percent rate this year and better than that early at the current Churchill Downs meet. He said he’s running because his colt is training in great form. Despite difficult trips, he’s made up ground late in four consecutive graded stakes. Developing beautifully and making his third start this year with his regular rider, 2007 Preakness hero Robby Albarado, he must step up his performance figures to seriously contend.

7--BIG BROWN 1-2: Remarkable colt moved forward in the Kentucky Derby for the third time in as many dirt starts. Empirical evidence dictates that he must regress, given his level of high performance and short recovery time. That’s logical. But he showed in the Derby that he’s learning how to distribute his energy more efficiently. Regarding horses with superior performance figures, we loathe the “he could bounce and still win” theory, because the amount of regression is a lot more difficult to measure than improvement. Barring the extremely unusual, remains undefeated.

8--KENTUCKY BEAR 15-1: Given the defections of Harlem Rocker and Recapturetheglory, he has earned much of the pre-race buzz as the most likely potential upsetter. After drawing off dramatically to win his debut going a mile at Gulfstream Park in January, he suffered through a rough trip and bled in the G2 Fountain of Youth before rebounding with a very good third at Keeneland. Working bullets since the Blue Grass, athletic colt appears fresh, fit and dangerous, indeed.

9--STEVIL 30-1: Hard to know where his Blue Grass race came from, given his prior form. Following an even try in the G2 Louisiana Derby, he finished ahead of eight rivals in the Blue Grass, beaten 2-½ lengths, after getting bumped soundly at the break and fanned a dozen wide into the Keeneland stretch. While the sample is small, trainer Nick Zito has done well with horses switching from synthetic tracks back to dirt. Will need an extremely fast pace to make a late impression, but that seems highly unlikely.

10--RILEY TUCKER 30-1: Placed in four graded stakes in a seven race career, he’s still eligible for preliminary allowances. Yet another three-year-old from the deep Ahmed Zayat Stables and trained by Bill Mott, colt has tactical speed and former Maryland kingpin Edgar Prado, an advantage on the sometimes quirky Pimlico oval. Performance figures jumped up big time in the Lexington. Hard to envision another forward move here, and that’s what it would take to be competitive.

11--GIANT MOON 30-1: Talented New York-bred had undefeated four-race career interrupted by hideously sloppy conditions in the Grade 3 Gotham, a surface that was so difficult for him to handle that Ramon Dominguez “took care of him” virtually the whole race. Rebounded nicely in the G1 Wood Memorial, beaten two lengths by Tale Of Ekati, the good Derby fourth. Earning a lifetime best pace figure in that race, and with a fast effort in early January as a foundation, further development is expected. Looms a live Preakness 133 longshot. Fast footing an absolute must.

12--GAYEGO 8-1: The early line second choice had quite a few things go wrong in Louisville. Coming off a career best effort, he figured to regress in the Derby. But that’s hard to tell because for the first three furlongs he suffered through the roughest trip imaginable, caught between rivals, checking severely, and was lucky not to fall. His energy was low following his final Derby workout and he had every right not to run well. So his Derby race proved nothing either way, he deserves another chance vs. Big Brown but certainly could have drawn much better.

13--HEY BYRN 20-1: Came to hand going long this winter at Gulfstream Park. His good mid-race move was lost behind the sensational performance of Big Brown in the Florida Derby. Subsequently, he was driving hard to win the G3 Holy Bull over moderate rivals. He’s been at his best as a mid-pack racer and has the ability to stalk the pace horses. How he will fare from the extreme outside position is anyone’s guess. Seriously up against it from out here; money prospects.

Most Probable Winner: Big Brown

Best Longshot: Giant Moon

Most Likely Money Finisher: Yankee Bravo

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NBC Taking on Eight Belles Issue Head On

By the time Saturday’s Preakness Stakes telecast ends at 6 p.m. EDT, all will know the potential implications that the June 7 Belmont Stakes will have on racing history. But the opening segment on the NBC Sports coverage beginning at 4:30 p.m. will have nothing to do with a potential superstar colt named Big Brown.

The storyline of Kentucky Derby 134 still very much is about the filly Eight Belles, euthanized about a half mile from the Churchill Downs finish line where she fatally injured herself while galloping out after the race.

Resultantly, the telecast’s host, Bob Costas, will use a roundtable format--similar to the one which gained him and the HBO cable network critical acclaim for his series on sports and the media--to open NBC‘s Preakness Stakes coverage.

Costas will begin the telecast with a 30-minute taped piece featuring a round table discussion among Churchill Downs’ attending veterinarian, Dr. Larry Bramlage, the filly’s trainer, Larry Jones, racing analyst and Hall of Famer jockey Gary Stevens, and New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden.

When describing horse racing, Rhoden used the words cruel and unusual in the same sentence.
I did not read last week's Times piece but I did hear an interview with Jim Lehrer the Monday evening after the Derby that featured a debate between Rhoden and a racing colleague and long time friend, Andrew Beyer of the Washington Post.

As I listened to the discussion, I found myself thinking, “what would I say if I were sitting at the table with Rhoden?” I felt uncomfortable, even while safely ensconced in my Saratoga Springs living room.

The topic itself, the line of questioning and Rhoden’s comments clearly placed Beyer on the defensive as he tried to explain what’s good about the industry, after having earned much of his journalistic chops as one of the sport’s most outspoken and respected critics.

Every retort or explanation Beyer gave was something I hoped that I might have thought of had I been the one on the hot seat. There was no weakness or hesitation in his answers, only clarity, as the Washington Post columnist tried to explain some of the sport’s many nuances that would unknown anyone not closely tethered to the game.

But here’s the bad news: With each correct answer, my gut was telling me that these explanations only fueled Rhoden’s criticisms and proved his point. Indeed, there were several times during the discussion when Rhoden explained that Beyer’s justifications were exactly the point: That horse racing can be unusually cruel.

That’s when I knew what I had suspected moments after learning of Eight Belles’ demise was true: That the story of Derby 134 wasn’t the tour de force victory of Big Brown but the death of a filly, and that it wasn’t a topic that anyone could move on fom anytime soon.

Accepting bad news and moving on is not only the mantra of modern sports but of contemporary life in the main. But that won’t be the case this weekend and interested parties will be working their DVRs overtime.

The topics to be covered--however briefly, given time constraints and the notion that the audience will have tuned expecting to see a particular horse race having its 133rd renewal--are breeding, training, permissive medication and the safety of track surfaces, according to NBC Sports producer Sam Flood.

As producer of the Derby telecast, Flood was criticized in some segments of the media for not covering the Eight Belles tragedy more in depth, mainly for not showing the grizzly pictures of a frightened animal attempting in vain to stand on two broken ankles. It was an injury that Bramlage said he never has seen, one I never even suspected was possible.

Of course, Flood made the right decision. No one, especially casual fans that watch one horse race a year, or children, need have that picture seared into their memory banks forever. “It’s not an image that should be seen during family viewing hours,” said Flood.

I had the best seat in the Belmont Park press box the afternoon Go for Wand broke her leg directly in front of the stands. It was a sight I never want to see again. I needed four shots of scotch to ease the pain before I could return to the word processor and opine about what I just saw for the morning editions of Newsday. In the press box lunch room, grown men cried openly.

Horses, whether racing at 40 mph on the racetrack or romping around the farm paddock with equine friends, will accidentally break down and some will die. That cannot be prevented.

But we can and should continue to talk about it, try to learn from it, and figure out ways not to be part of the problem. Only then would it be permissible to talk about moving on.

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