What stands between Big Brown and a Louisville coronation? Four brittle feet and a resume that relies on raw talent over experience.
While one hesitates to hand out accolades like “great” based on a single race, I’m going to make an exception in the case of Big Brown. His scintillating victory in the $1 million Florida Derby on Saturday was not just the most brilliant performance in a Kentucky Derby prep this year, it was one of the best races by a 3-year-old I've seen in the 13 years that I’ve been covering the Triple Crown.
In fact, I’ll shinny out even farther out on the limb: This is a colt with the talent to end the 29-year Triple Crown drought as long as his troublesome hooves don’t act up and he can overcome his woeful lack of experience to win the Kentucky Derby after just three lifetime starts.
His Florida Derby performance suggests he can.
Gulfstream’s track reconfiguration in 2004 put the starting gate for 1 1/8-mile races immediately in front of the first turn, giving horses starting outside little time to move in and save ground. That explains why the 11 and 12 posts were 0-for-29 since 2004 heading into Saturday’s card.
Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, ran huge to win the Florida Derby from the 10 post in a 10-horse field, but Big Brown’s race on Saturday was even bigger.
Desormeaux had no choice
With Big Brown parked in the 12 hole, jockey Kent Desormeaux had no choice but to gun his mount out of the gate to try to avoid being hung far wide on the first turn.
He managed to do so, scooting in to be just 3 or 4 wide around the bend. But when the fractions of :22.76 and :45.83 flashed on the tote board as Big Brown led the pack down the backstretch, wiseguys around the country were undoubtedly turning to their couchmates and offering 50-1 or more that the son of Boundary would grow rubber legged in the stretch and be inhaled by the closers.
But somebody forgot to tell Big Brown that you’re not supposed to be able to run that fast early and carry your speed a full 9 furlongs. He drew away from his pursuers at the top of the stretch and coasted under the wire five lengths clear of Smooth Air and another 7 ½ in front of Peruvian wonder horse Tomcito.
“It was insane,” Desormeaux told ABC analyst Jerry Bailey as he and Big Brown returned to the winner’s circle. “… This guy, his ears were straight forward, his head was up and he was just bounding down the backside like a deer in a meadow. This is when you know you’re riding a good horse, (when) you go around the track and you went around in :45 and it felt like :50.”
Trainer Rick Dutrow was just as giddy, gushing, “I’m so excited I don’t know what to say.”
The scary thing is that Big Brown likely has room for improvement. He was wandering all over the track in the stretch or he might have broken Brass Hat’s track record of 1:47.79 for the 1 1/8-mile distance at Gulfstream. As it was, he finished in 1:48.16, just .37 seconds off that mark and nearly a full second faster than Barbaro covered the distance.
A late foal
He’s also an April 10 foal, which means he was one of the youngest horses in the Florida Derby field, and likely has more physical maturing in front of him.
And while his sire, Boundary, and dam, Mien, are not exactly household names, their bloodlines indicate that he should have no problem getting the Kentucky Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles.
If Big Brown has a weakness it is where the rubber meets the road. Quarter cracks – the equivalent of a torn thumbnail in humans -- in both front feet kept him from making his 3-year-old debut until March. That has his connections wondering if they still had time to make the Kentucky Derby.
That question has changed to whether he can become the first horse in 93 years to win the Run for the Roses off only three career starts.
That’s no cinch, as the slightly more experienced Curlin discovered last year. But Big Brown’s running style – he has the versatility to force the issue by running to the front out of the gate or sitting off the leaders and pouncing in the later stages – gives him an important edge. He also appears to shares the same calm demeanor that made Barbaro such a special racehorse.
How much is he worth?
Big Brown is a graduate of Keeneland’s 2007 April 2-Year-Olds in Training sale, where owner Paul Pompa Jr. had the foresight to sign a check for the bargain price of $190,000. There are varying reports as to how much International Equine Acquisition Holdings paid for a three-quarters share of Big Brown after the colt effortlessly won his debut on the turf by 11 ¼ lengths on Sept. 3. Horseraceinsider.com’s Executive Editor John Pricci pegged the price Monday at $2.25 million, while Blood Horse correspondent Steve Haskin had it at “about $3.5 million.” He also quoted unidentified sources close to the horse as saying that an investment group offered the ridiculous sum of $30 million for the horse after the Florida Derby.
On the other hand, that hefty price may well turn out to be a bargain if the colt lives up to the promise he made on Saturday.
As always, I want to hear your thoughts on Big Brown. Click here to let me know whether you think he’s the second coming of Secretariat or just a good horse who ran out of his mind on Saturday? I’ll publish a smattering of the best comments I receive with next week’s column.
“I would have to say that there really is not a whole lot to discuss regarding this horse,” he wrote. “He is not a leading Derby prospect, as his trainer will testify. While the horse is a beautiful animal to look at, his motion over the track seems to indicate that he has a running style that is more appropriate over certain turf surfaces and in some instances a poly surface (depending on the poly track).”
The Triple Crown chase heats up this weekend with the running of the Santa Anita Derby, the Wood Memorial and the Illinois Derby.
Georgie Boy hurt, out of Derby chase
The $750,000 Santa Anita Derby (Gr. 1) -- and the Kentucky Derby for that matter -- lost some of its luster on Monday when trainer Kathy Walsh announced that the gelding Georgie Boy had suffered a pulled muscle in his hindquarters and would miss the race. That definitely means he won’t be heading to Louisville, and likely will miss the other Triple Crown races as well.
The race, which will be televised by NBC Sports, still has a marquee matchup of two of the West’s top 3-year-olds – Colonel John and El Gato Malo. Colonel John handed El Gato Malo his first defeat in the Sham Stakes on March 1.
A field of nine appeared to be shaping up for the $750,000 Wood Memorial (Gr. 1), led by 2-year-old champion War Pass. The Nick Zito-trained colt will be attempting to rebound from a severe drubbing in the Tampa Bay Derby while facing tougher competition, including Court Vision, Tale of Ekati and Texas Wildcatter, among others.
Denis Of Cork will head a field of seven in the $500,000 Illinois Derby (Gr. 2) at Hawthorne. His chief opponents look to be the Todd Pletcher-trained Atoned and Bill Mott’s Z Humor.
The American-trained Animal Kingdom, winner of the Kentucky Derby in 2011 and the $10-million Dubai World Cup this year, is set to be retired to stud after running the Queen Anne Stakes on Tuesday.
Ramon Dominguez, a three-time Eclipse Award winner as the leading jockey in North America, retired on Thursday due to a head injury suffered in a fall earlier this year.