Where have we seen this before? A modestly-bred Danzig-line horse, after leading throughout to score a devastating win in a grade I classic trial on his second start of the year, becomes a favorite for the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Well, in 2005 Bellamy Road, a son of Concerto (by Danzig’s champion 2-year-old Chief’s Crown), destroyed the field to take the Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) by a scarcely believable 17 1/2 lengths. Starting favorite for the Derby, Bellamy Road saw his chances compromised by the presence of a “rabbit,” Spanish Chestnut, and finished seventh, beaten 8 3/4 lengths. Bellamy Road popped a splint after the race and wasn’t seen again until the Travers Stakes (gr. I) when he was a game second to Flower Alley after leading much of the way. That proved to be Bellamy Road’s swan song, and although he remained in training at 4, he never reached the races.
It seemed like Bellamy Road all over again last Saturday, when Big Brown produced an astonishing display to win the Florida Derby (gr. I). Having drawn post position 12, Big Brown had to run a first quarter in :22.76 to get to the front, and he continued to set a rapid pace through a half in :45.83. Having run his rivals into submission by the time he reached the home stretch, Big Brown continued to draw away, and despite being under a hand ride, finished up strongly enough to miss the track record by just :37 hundredths of a second. This performance rocketed Big Brown to the role of morning-line favorite for the final Derby pool, which took place April 3-6. His rise to the top has been even more rapid than that of Bellamy Road, who was making the fifth start of his life in the Wood, and had previously won the Miller Genuine Draft Cradle Stakes (gr. III).
In fact, Big Brown’s career to date is more reminiscent of that of Curlin, who went into last year’s Derby undefeated in three starts. However, even Curlin had made three starts in the current year, where Big Brown’s three outings span seven months, dating back to his Sept. 3 juvenile debut at Saratoga. He caused an indelible impression there, taking an 8 1/2-furlong turf event by 11 1/4 lengths. After that impressive triumph, a few minor issues kept Big Brown off the track until March 5, when he resurfaced in a one-mile off-the-turf allowance event at Gulfstream Park. Showing he handled dirt every bit as well as turf, Big Brown stormed home 12 3/4 lengths clear to place himself firmly in the classic picture.
Bred by Dr. Gary Knapp’s Monticule, Big Brown was a $60,000 Fasig-Tipton October yearling (the most expensive for his sire that year), and was resold to Paul Pompa Jr. (with Hidden Brook acting as agent) for $190,000 at the Keeneland April 2007 2-year-olds sale. Pompa sold a 75% share in the horse to IEAH Stables after his debut win, and there are rumors that there was a $30 million offer made for the horse following the Florida Derby (gr. I).
Relative to their circumstance, all were pretty serious numbers for a horse of Big Brown’s pedigree – at least in terms of a commercial evaluation. His sire, Boundary, was a well-bred son of Danzig, and was a very talented, if not entirely sound, sprinter. Unraced at 2, Boundary started only twice at 3, winning on both occasions. At 4, however, he developed into a high-class performer, winning four of six starts, including the A Phenomenon Handicap (gr. III) — a race he took at the chief expense of that year’s champion sprinter, Cherokee Run — and Roseben Handicap (also gr. III). His sole defeats came when beaten a nose by Friendly Lover in the True North Handicap (gr. II), and third to Virginia Rapids and Cherokee Run in the seven-furlong Tom Fool Stakes (gr. II), his only attempt beyond three-quarters of a mile. At stud, Boundary (who was pensioned after the 2005 breeding season), sired 23 stakes winners from 420 foals. In addition to Big Brown, the best have been the King’s Bishop and Forego Stakes (both gr. I) winner Pomeroy, now a sire in Florida; Minardi, who was rated the 2-year-old highweight in England after winning the Middle Park Stakes (Eng-I) and Independent Heinz 57 Phoenix Stakes (Ire-I); and graded stakes winners Conserve, Straight Line, and Lady Belsara.
Other than the Puerto Rican black-type winner Bright Mahogany (out of a half-sister to Big Brown’s second dam), Big Brown’s first three dams had not produced a stakes winner for three generations prior to last Saturday’s Florida Derby. That’s not to say the distaff line was without class, however, as Big Brown’s dam, Mien, a winner at 3, is by Nureyev, out of the English stakes-placed Lear Fan mare Miasma — thus having the siblings Thong (granddam of Nureyev) and Lt. Stevens (broodmare sire of Lear Fan) 3 x 4 in her pedigree. Mien’s only foal prior to Big Brown was the winning Gulch gelding Snake River Canyon. At one point in his career, which was ultimately derailed by injury, Snake River Canyon had raced for Pompa, and it was the promise that he had shown that led to Pompa’s interest in Big Brown at the 2-year-old sales.
Big Brown’s third dam, Syrian Circle, a daughter of Damascus, was only a minor winner, but was half-sister to the Quiet American mare Hidden Lake, who earned an Eclipse Award as champion older female of 1997. Syrian Circle is also half-sister to the stakes-winning Alydar horse Midway Circle and to Ginistrelli, who preceded Big Brown as a Derby Trial winner, albeit in England, capturing the Ladbrokes Derby Trial (Eng-III), back in 1980. The fourth dam, Friendly Circle, won the Rare Treat Stakes (gr. III), and the fifth, Really Trying, took the Rosenna Stakes. The family came to the U.S. with Big Brown’s sixth dam, Pinet. That mare is rather interesting in relation to the previously-mentioned inbreeding to the sister and brother, Thong and Lt. Stevens, who are out of the famed producer Rough Shod II, a granddaughter of the mare Simon’s Shoes (GB), who also appears as third dam of Pinet, so Mien has three crosses of this female line.
Big Brown is a TrueNicks A++ horse on the basis of the Boundary/Nureyev cross. (Prior to Big Brown’s Florida Derby victory, the cross was already rated A++, based on the broader Boundary/Northern Dancer cross.) Even though it gives relatively close male-line Northern Dancer inbreeding, the Danzig/Nureyev cross has produced more than 20 additional stakes winners prior to Big Brown’s appearance. Five of these have preceded Big Brown as grade I winners, among them the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and Juddmonte Grand Prix de Paris (both Fr-I) victor Rail Link; Desert King, whose triumphs included the Lexus Irish Two Thousand Guineas and Budweiser Irish Derby (both Ire-I); Echelon, who took the Coolmore Fusaichi Pegasus Matron Stakes (Ire-I); and Araafa, winner of the Boylesports Irish Two Thousand Guineas (Ire-I) and St. James’s Palace Stakes (Eng-I).
Normally, the mating of a sprinting son of Danzig, out of a mare by Nureyev and with a second dam by Lear Fan, would suggest that the result would be an animal best suited to distances no longer than a mile. Big Brown, however, clearly has no problem with nine furlongs, and the way he finished in the Florida Derby suggests that an extra furlong is not going to inconvenience him.
The source of this stamina may be found in what is probably the most interesting aspect of Big Brown’s pedigree. Boundary’s dam, the graded stakes-winning filly Edge, is by Damascus out of a graded stakes-winning daughter of Round Table. This is an identical pedigree to that of Big Brown’s third dam, Syrian Circle. So, in addition to having Northern Dancer — himself a Kentucky Derby winner — 3 x 3, Big Brown has the close relatives Edge and Syrian Circle 2 x 3. A look at their race records shows that Damascus won the Jockey Club Gold Cup when that race was contested at two miles, while Round Table finished second in an earlier running of the same race, and also won stakes up to 13 furlongs, so the relatives do give quite a concentration of staying ability.