By Karen M. Johnson
Surely trainer Pat Reynolds will be experiencing the feeling of “what could have been” when he watches the freakishly talented Big Brown run May 3 in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr.I) at Churchill Downs.
Reynolds, 57, trained Big Brown early in his 2-year-old season. The colt is undefeated in three starts, including an awesome-looking performance in the Florida Derby (gr.I) which stamped him as perhaps the favorite for the Run for the Roses.
Upon the advice of Reynolds, Paul Pompa Jr. purchased Big Brown, a son of Boundary out of the Nureyev mare Mien, for $190,000 at Keeneland’s April 2-year-old in training sale last spring.
The Big Brown story began earlier, during the winter of 2007, when Reynolds claimed Snake River Canyon, an older half-brother to Big Brown, by Gulch, for $62,500 from trainer Frank Brothers at Gulfstream Park. When Snake River Canyon ran next for $75,000, he won for Reynolds and Pompa, but was claimed back by Brothers.
“We thought we would give Snake River Canyon a confidence builder and then run him up the ladder,” Reynolds said April 25. “We ran him once, and Frankie claimed him back. It was an exciting race. He banged around on the front end with four horses, repulsed five bids. It was a top effort.”
Reynolds and Pompa saw enough from Snake River Canyon, who never won again for Brothers, to pique their interest when his half-brother was offered at Keeneland. Pompa, who has had horses with Reynolds since 2003, called his trainer and asked what he thought about buying Big Brown, who was bred in Kentucky by Dr. Gary Knapp’s Monticule.
“I knew Monticule had good breeding stock,” Reynolds said. “Monticule is a very interesting outfit. The guy behind it (Dr. Knapp) is a genius, I think. I told Paul, Snake River Canyon wasn’t that big, but if Big Brown had size, he should buy him, and he did.”
After absolutely crushing a field of maidens on the grass at Saratoga last year, Mike Iavarone and Richard Schiavo’s IEAH Stables purchased 75% interest in Big Brown from Pompa, who retained 25%. After the sale, the horse was turned over to trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. who trains the bulk of IEAH’s runners.
Reynolds said he wasn’t at liberty to discuss Big Brown’s purchase price, but did comment upon the $3 million price tag reported in the New York Times.
“I think (the Times) got their facts wrong,” said Reynolds, who hinted the price was higher. “Pompa is a pretty sharp guy, a business guy. The offers came in 20 minutes after Big Brown won his first race.
“Paul is a real straight-up guy, and he believed I was entitled to my (10) percent of the sale because I am the one who got the horse to the races. He didn’t short me one penny. He has always done the right thing by me.”
Reynolds said Big Brown gave him a dose of the “wow” factor even before the horse reached the races.
“One day he worked on the Oklahoma turf at Saratoga and went a half-mile in :44 3/5,” Reynolds said. “The clockers described the turf as a paved road, but paved road or not, 2-year-olds don’t do splits like that.”
Big Brown has an unusual marking, nearby his girth area on his left side, which Reynolds described as “white, the size of a couple half-dollars.” He said the distinctive marking could be the stamp of greatness, giving a nod to Federico Tesio, one of the most influential breeders of the 20th century.
“Tesio said really good horses sometimes have something freakish about them,” Reynolds said. “Big Brown certainly has that oddball patch.”
Reynolds, who saddled his first winner in 1974 at Keystone Park, gained national recognition for his work with Peeping Tom, a gelding he and Flatbird Stable claimed for $40,000 and who went on to win $802,395 and was victorious in the 2001 Carter Handicap (gr.I) at Aqueduct. In last year’s Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr.I), Reynolds saddled the Pompa-owned Backseat Rhythm to a third-place finish behind champion Indian Blessing and Proud Spell at Monmouth Park. The filly also finished second in the Frizette Stakes (gr.I) at Belmont Park.
But Reynolds has never had a chance with a Derby horse. He came close in 2004 with Gotham (gr.III) winner Alysweep, but the former claimer failed to make any of the Triple Crown races. Come Derby Day 2008, Reynolds will be kicking back on his couch at his home in Flushing, N.Y., watching Big Brown. He acknowledged that it is a bittersweet scenario, but he is pulling for Pompa who has 13 horses at Belmont with him.
“Everybody has feelings,” Reynolds said. “Of course, I would much rather Big Brown be running in my name in the program. Winning the Derby is a career-changing race. But we couldn’t have sold him and held on to him at the same time. If we had to do it again, we would. You always got to take the money. I wish the connections of Big Brown the best.”