Haskin's Derby Recap: Highs and Lows

Haskin's Derby Recap: Highs and Lows
Photo: Skip Dickstein
Big Brown and Eight Belles complete the Derby exacta.
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Reprinted from Blood-Horse magazine

Thoroughbred racing treads a fine line between its loftiest peak and its deepest abyss. Once again, celebration and sorrow clashed, this time in the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), as the death of a courageous racehorse cast a shadow over a performance by another so unique there should have been no room for anything but rejoicing following his ascent into the realm of greatness.

Instead, heartache intruded on the coronation of Big Brown, racing’s newest superstar, just as it did after last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I), when the death of George Washington dimmed the spotlight for Curlin. This time, it was the filly Eight Belles, who ran her heart out to finish second to Big Brown only to stagger and fall while pulling up nearing the backstretch. The daughter of Unbridled’s Song suffered fractures in both her front legs—something the on-call veterinarian for the American Association of Equine Practitioners, noted surgeon Larry Bramlage said he had never seen before—and was euthanized on the track. No one could recall another fatal breakdown occurring on racing’s greatest stage.

Ironically, it occurred one day after the death of Frank Whiteley Jr., the trainer of Ruffian, whose fatal injury in a match race in 1975 has inspired two books, a movie, and several documentaries.

As difficult as it is to look beyond the death of Eight Belles, there was reason for elation, and the filly’s tragic end should not place a shroud over the remarkable performance by Big Brown, who elevated himself into a stratosphere reserved only for a rare breed of Thoroughbred.

By winning the Kentucky Derby by 4 3⁄4 lengths, and remaining undefeated in a whirlwind career that has seen him win all four of his starts by an average margin of more than eight lengths, Big Brown now looks like an unstoppable force as he prepares to head on to Baltimore for the May 17 Preakness Stakes (gr. I).

The colt defied history by winning the Derby in his fourth career start, something that hadn’t been done since Regret in 1915, and by winning from post 20, which was accomplished only by Clyde Van Dusen in 1929, prior to the advent of the starting gate. He also has overcome two quarter cracks and a burned heel and ran in the Derby wearing front bandages for the first time. None of it mattered.

Big Brown stormed into Louisville the Monday before the Derby, accompanied by his flamboyant crew, consisting of trainer Rick Dutrow and majority owners IEAH Stables, headed by Michael Iavarone and Richard Schiavo, who own the son of Boundary—Mien, by Nureyev, in partnership with the colt’s original owner, Paul Pompa Jr., as well as Gary Tolchin and Andrew Cohen.

Dutrow, son of the late trainer Dick Dutrow, who led the nation in wins in 1975, brought with him some heavy baggage from a nefarious past that saw him involved with cocaine, marijuana, and petty theft, all of which had left him virtually penniless and living in a tack room at Aqueduct with one horse to train. That, the murder of his daughter’s mother, and a number of suspensions provided plenty of fodder for the press. All the while, Dutrow remained intensely focused on preparing Big Brown for the Derby.

The one aspect of Dutrow most people do not get an opportunity to witness firsthand is his undying love of horses, something he’s had since his early childhood when working for his father. It was that love that brought him out of the tack room and into the public eye. He is now among the sport’s elite trainers and joins legendary horsemen D. Wayne Lukas, Charlie Whittingham, Neil Drysdale, and Carl Nafzger as the only trainers to win the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic with two different horses.

When the second-largest Derby crowd of 157,770 had cleared out of Churchill Downs, Dutrow returned to his barn, hugged his longtime exercise rider and assistant trainer Michelle Nevin, and strutted down the shedrow to see Big Brown.

“Where is he?” Dutrow asked rhetorically, as if about to greet a long lost friend. “You are the freakin’ man,” he said admiringly after entering Big Brown’s stall. He gave the colt a dozen or so affectionate smacks on the neck and then wrapped his arms tightly around his neck for about 30 seconds, as if unable or unwilling to let go. Big Brown never moved as he rested his head on Dutrow’s shoulder. With Big Brown peering straight ahead as Dutrow embraced him, it was one of those priceless moments that seem frozen in time. This is the Rick Dutrow people rarely see. This is when the often brash, outspoken trainer becomes humbled by the equine gifts that have been bestowed upon him.

When Dutrow finally did let go, he looked at Big Brown and noticed something he’d never seen before.

“He’s tired,” Dutrow said. “Look at my boy.” Then, directing his comments to the horse, he said, “I finally got you. I finally got you tired. Look at my little buddy. You kicked their ass, Brown.”

Don’t Sell Short

Dutrow’s magical journey with Big Brown began when Iavarone, watching the fifth race at Saratoga on TV last Sept. 3, a 1 1⁄16-mile maiden race on turf, saw a brown streak flash across the screen that immediately caught his eye. Trained by Patrick Reynolds for Pompa and ridden by Jeremy Rose, Big Brown, whom Pompa had purchased at the Keeneland April 2-year-old sale for $190,000 through his bloodstock agent, Hidden Brook, looked like something special, grass or no grass. It’s extremely rare to see a horse win a turf race in his career debut by 11 1⁄4 lengths.

“You just don’t see horses win on the grass like that,” said Iavarone, who called Dutrow and told him, “This is a horse that we need to buy.”

As soon as Big Brown crossed the wire, Reynolds turned to Pompa and said, “I know the pedigree is a little weak, but this horse just ran a $2-million race; don’t sell him short.” Reynolds knew what he had, but he also knew they couldn’t turn down the offers they likely would be getting.

“He was a horse who was always easy on himself, but when he’d get in company with other horses he definitely was the alpha-male type,” Reynolds said. “He didn’t want other horses near him and would just sprint away from them in workouts—2-year-olds, older horses, anything. He’d always want to get the better of any stablemate he was working with.”

Following the maiden race, the first of several offers came in, but fell through. That’s when IEAH Stables entered the picture, purchasing the colt for $3.5 million and offering to let Pompa stay in for 25%.
After being sent to Dutrow at Aqueduct, Big Brown developed a quarter crack and was forced to miss the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Then, at Palm Meadows training center, another quarter crack developed on a different foot. Unable to work the entire month of January, Big Brown, with only the one maiden turf victory, hardly looked like a Derby horse.

Dutrow was able to get three works into him in February, and it was the third work, a five-furlong drill in 1:00 2⁄5, that made him do something he dreaded doing. He entered him in a one-mile turf allowance race at Gulfstream, despite his lack of seasoning.

“The way he did it, we just had to put him in a race; we couldn’t wait,” Dutrow said. “It didn’t matter if it was on dirt or grass, I told the racing secretary just get a race for him.”

But after entering, Dutrow began to have doubts about his decision. “I said to myself, ‘With only three breezes, I got to be out of my mind to do that to this horse.’ I was scared to death, and it was really bothering me,” he recalled.

Dutrow, however, would soon discover that when it came to Big Brown, there was no need to worry about anything. The race was taken off the turf, and Big Brown cruised to an easy 12 3⁄4-length score in 1:35.66. Watching the race was Bob Baffert, who also had tried to buy Big Brown and now knew what he had missed out on. “Man, that son of a bitch can run,” he said shortly after the race. “That’s what you want to see in a Derby horse. We just saw the Curlin of this year.”

Dutrow knew he was sitting on a keg of dynamite. “The Derby was not even in our vocabulary, but now how can you possibly stop it?” he said after the race. “This horse has taken control of the game, and we’re just innocent bystanders riding along with him. He’s absolutely unstoppable right now.”

It was time to prove it in the Florida Derby (gr. I). Dutrow had Diamond Stripes and Benny the Bull running the same day in rich stakes in Dubai, but there was no way he was going to be separated from Big Brown. He remained at Gulfstream and watched on TV as both Diamond Stripes and Benny the Bull emerged victorious.

Despite drawing the outside post in the field of 12, a post no horse had won from since the reconfiguration of Gulfstream Park two years ago, Big Brown, equipped with glue-on shoes with rubber tips to take the pressure off his feet, shot to the lead, set fast fractions, and drew off to a five-length victory, even with the bit getting wrenched on the side of his mouth and his tongue working its way over it. Racing had its latest phenom and the Kentucky Derby had a new favorite, displacing War Pass and Pyro from the top spots.

Dutrow elected to keep Big Brown at Palm Meadows, where he walked to the track on dirt rather than concrete and where there were far fewer horses on the track. Five days before the Derby, Big Brown finally arrived at Churchill Downs.

To read Steve Haskin's personal accounts of some of racing's most thrilling moments, check out his new book, Tales from the Triple Crown.

With him came the swagger of Dutrow and Iavarone. But they were convinced it wasn’t false bravado, and merely were preparing everyone to witness one of the fastest, classiest, and most brilliant horses ever to grace the Twin Spires.

Iavarone and IEAH had 114 people coming to the Derby in four 30-passenger private jets, all leaving from different locations, and had reserved 70 hotel rooms. “They’ll have to medivac me out of there if we win,” Iavarone said.  

Big Arrival

As expected, Big Brown’s first appearance on the racetrack was accompanied by hordes of media. The colt seemed oblivious to it all as he casually went about his business, galloping over the track as if he’d been on it all his life. All along the rail, eyes opened wide as he darted by, hitting the ground with long, effortless strides.

“Michelle said she went once around with him and felt like she was bench-pressing 500 pounds,” Iavarone said. “Believe me, this is not an aberration; he’s that good. He’s getting more and more focused as Rick finally has been able to turn the screws on him. I loved him the first time I saw him. We ran 45 minutes of X-rays on him. There were flies all around him and he didn’t bat an eyelash. Everyone knows of this horse, but they don’t know him. They don’t know how good he really is, but I’m telling you, he’s going to run bigger than he did in the Florida Derby, I can promise you that.”

Meanwhile, other stories were being played out in the 134th Kentucky Derby, such as 70-year-old Bennie Stutts Jr., the trainer of Smooth Air who would get choked up and teary-eyed just thinking about having a horse in the Derby. Nine days before the race, Smooth Air came down with a low-grade fever, apparently ending Stutts’ dream, but the colt recovered quickly and was back on the track three days later.

Then there was Denis of Cork, who was training brilliantly, but needed one horse to come out of the race in order to make the starting field. With entry day nearing and Eight Belles’ connections intending to enter in both the Derby and Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), it was not looking good for Denis of Cork. Then, on Monday morning, trainer David Carroll received a phone call from Satish Sanan telling him that he was not going to enter his Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) winner Behindatthebar, who would run in the Preakness instead.

“Thank you so much, Satish. I’m very excited,” Carroll said to Sanan. “I really appreciate it.” When Carroll hung up, he uttered one sound: “Whew!” He then called owner William Warren, who had already been told the news by Sanan. “Mr. Warren, let’s party,” Carroll said. “I’m so excited I’m shaking right now.”

Carroll then left his office and danced down the shedrow while throwing a flurry of Rocky-like punches into the air. He couldn’t wait to tell his wife, Kim. “We’re in the Derby, honey,” he said before telling Denis of Cork the news. “You’re gonna get to show off next weekend,” he told the horse.

There was also the return to Churchill Downs of Louie Roussel and Ronnie Lamarque, who had Recapturetheglory, whom Roussel named to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Risen Star’s victory in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes (gr. I) in 1988. “I can’t ask God to let him win, but I’ll ask him to finish second or third, just so we can go on to the Preakness and Belmont and keep Risen Star’s memory alive,” Roussel said.

The other story that had captured everyone’s attention was the decision to run Eight Belles in the Derby. Trainer Larry Jones had Proud Spell in the Kentucky Oaks (which she would win impressively), and Eight Belles’ owner Rick Porter was not thrilled about the prospects of having to face her in the Oaks. Based on Eight Belles’ speed figures and the way she was training, he felt she had a shot in the Derby, despite never having run farther than 1 1⁄16 miles. “If Rick wants to run in the Derby, I don’t have an issue with it,” Jones said. “I have no doubt she’ll get the mile and a quarter.”

With the exception of Big Brown, the Derby looked wide open, with the likely second choice being Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Colonel John, who had never run on dirt. Four major Derby horses were coming off out-of-the-money performances in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) over Polytrack, including Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner Pyro.

To show how wide open and confusing this year’s 3-year-old picture has been, the 28 graded stakes for 3-year-olds in 2008 were won by 25 different horses.

At the post position draw, Dutrow and the IEAH crew continued their unorthodox attack on the Derby by passing over posts 1, 2, 18, and 19 and selecting post 20, much to the surprise of everyone. As they waited for ESPN to return from a commercial, Iavarone turned around to Doug Cauthen of WinStar Farm, with whom IEAH is a partner in Court Vision, and prepared him for what was to come. “We’re going to go so far outside he’ll be able to grab a hot dog along the way,” he said.

And so they did, selecting the dreaded 20 post. As usual, Dutrow was happy with the post, as he was in the Florida Derby, feeling Big Brown would be out of harm’s way and have a better shot at a clean trip.

Big Brown was not your warm and fuzzy story, like Street Sense was last year with Carl Nafzger, Calvin Borel, and James Tafel. Iavarone is the first to admit it, and wanted the all the focus to be on Big Brown, not IEAH and Dutrow.

“He might come out to a couple of boos, but at the end of the day everybody’s here for the horse,” Iavarone said. “Rick’s personal life hasn’t been the greatest, but that’s behind him. People don’t realize that these horses are like his children. Nobody takes care of their horses like he does. And Rick’s whole life is this horse, I promise you.”

The Big Brown buzz continued the day after the draw when, during Dutrow’s daily press conference, a large bale of hay was delivered by UPS. The company was raking in the publicity of having the horse named after it by Pompa, whose trucking operation has a contract with the carrier company, which has a large facility at the Louisville airport.

Earlier that morning, Big Brown blew out three-eighths of a mile in a scintillating :35 2/5 with a motionless Nevin high in saddle and Big Brown cocking his ears as if out for a leisurely stroll. Mike McCarthy, assistant to Todd Pletcher, was out on the track and was impressed with what he saw. “Best moving horse I think I’ve ever seen out there,” he said.

Derby Favorite

Big Brown, under Kent Desormeaux, was sent off the $2.40-1 favorite in the Derby, followed by Colonel John at 9-2 and Pyro at 5-1. Everyone else was in double digits.

In the tunnel leaving the paddock, Recapturetheglory lurched forward, throwing jockey E.T. Baird hard to the ground. Gayego, directly behind him, and Big Brown had to put on the brakes, as Desormeaux turned around, held his arms up and shouted at the mass of humanity following him to stop. Big Brown still had not reached the tunnel, and the crowd on either side of him began shouting at the colt, many of them calling out the name “Brown.” Despite having to circle for a couple of minutes with all the tumult in front of him and the boisterous crowd around him, Big Brown never turned a hair.

Roussel was devastated as he sat in an office alongside the tunnel preparing to watch the race on TV. “E.T. is ridin’ hurt,” he said. “He banged himself up pretty good.” This followed another odd incident two weeks earlier when Recapturetheglory had to avoid a dog that ran in front of him as he was pulling up after a work.

Big Brown broke sharply, but was hung four wide going into the clubhouse turn, with Bob Black Jack showing the way, going a soft opening quarter in :23.30 against a strong headwind. Cowboy Cal was right off his flank followed by Illinois Derby (gr. II) winner Recapturetheglory, Big Brown on the far outside, and Eight Belles two off the rail. Calvin Borel, as usual, managed to get Denis of Cork from the 16-post to the rail in an eighth of a mile, bringing up the rear as he did last year with Street Sense.

Down the backstretch, after a half in :47.04, the field remained pretty much the same, with Cool Coal Man moving up along the rail and Eight Belles getting a half-length advantage on Big Brown, who was now sixth and still racing in the five-path. Bob Black Jack continued to hold a narrow advantage over Cowboy Cal as they passed the three-quarter mark in 1:11.14. Desormeaux, still biding his time on Big Brown, finally pulled the trigger passing the three-eighths pole, just as Recapturetheglory was surging to the front. Big Brown’s move was swift and electrifying as he charged past Recapturetheglory at the quarter pole in 1:36.56 for the mile.

“When I saw him take the lead and no one was coming, I went crazy,” Dutrow said. “Then it hit me: we’re gonna win the Kentucky Derby.”

Big Brown powered his way to the lead, as Eight Belles, who had to steady twice in traffic, finally found an opening and closed strongly, while pulling away from the rest of the pack. Desormeaux kept after Big Brown, who drew off to a 4 3⁄4-length victory in 2:01.82. Eight Belles drifted to the rail, but continued to run strongly to the wire, while pulling away from the rest of the field.

Denis of Cork, who had moved up between horses on the turn before heading back to the rail, closed well for third, but couldn’t get closer than 3 1⁄2 lengths to Eight Belles, who ran an amazing race. Then came the horrific scene as she fell to the ground while pulling up. With both her front ankles broken, there was no hope of saving her.

As Desormeaux said afterward, “Big Brown showed you his heart, and Eight Belles showed you her life.” It was the third Derby victory for Desormeaux (who was also aboard Fusaichi Pegasus and Real Quiet), and he called Big Brown the best horse he’s ever ridden.

Tale of Ekati ran steadily throughout to finish fourth, three-quarters of a length in front of Recapturetheglory, who ran a gutsy race. Big Brown, bred in Kentucky by Gary Knapp’s Monticule, became the seventh undefeated Kentucky Derby winner.

“Tell me that wasn’t the best thing you’ve seen in years,” Iavarone said. “He’s beyond special. He’s left me awestruck.”

“The winner is a monster,” said Carroll.

As Dutrow and the owners and their families celebrated in the Kentucky Derby Museum, Nevin was back at the barn reflecting on this once-in-a-lifetime horse she has had the privilege to ride.

“He’s just an amazing horse,” she said. “Everyone who has ever been on his back says the same thing. He does everything so easily, it’s unbelievable. He’s one of those freaky, special horses we’re all dying to see. Even when Recapturetheglory was going crazy in the tunnel, we were two horses behind him and there were crowds of people right behind us and he was just so cool. He’s got a presence about him. He has a beautiful face and when he looks at you, he looks right into your eyes.”

Pattie Mulderig, who does the billing for the barn and who used to groom horses for Dick Dutrow before his death in 1999, was happy for Rick most of all. Dick Dutrow never forgave his then-troubled son for wasting his God-given talents, and Mulderig says she just wishes he were alive to see what Rick has accomplished.

“Dick was tough, but he would have been very proud,” she said. “He’s probably up there now going ‘I knew you could do it, son.’ He always knew Rick had a natural talent and was a great horseman. Rick has this gift. It’s like he talks in horse.

”But the star of the 2008 Run for the Roses was Big Brown. Perhaps the most fitting and prophetic comment came from Iavarone four days before the race following Big Brown’s first gallop. After expounding on the colt’s virtues, he stated simply and emphatically: “Right now, he is the Kentucky Derby.”

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