The 134th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), also known as The Brown Derby, was such a mixed bag of emotions, observations, and conclusions, there is no way to analyze it in the normal manner or find a proper place for it in the history books.
There is nothing that can be said here about the Eight Belles tragedy that hasn’t been said already. As legendary turf writer Joe Hirsch said after the race, it was a sad day for racing on two counts: the loss of Eight Belles and having a sensational performance by an extraordinary horse overshadowed by what is believed to be the first fatality in Derby history. Even Eight Belles' courageous performance was obscured by her death and its volatile aftermath. And lost among all the PETA nonsense is the fact that trainer Larry Jones and owner Rick Porter have finished second in back-to-back Kentucky Derbys.
Yes, PETA will no doubt continue protesting the incident, but people in racing, as well as casual followers of the sport, must accept the fact that the organization’s actions, not just in this instance, are often based on ignorance. PETA began as a well-intentioned organization, and any lover of animals had to embrace their cause. Animals need protection and the louder the voice to accomplish that the better. But to compare horse racing to cock fighting and dog fighting demonstrates how far PETA has descended. In a country with numerous radical organizations, it’s a shame PETA had to go that route. It seems the organization now feeds on misfortune in order to stage a demonstration or file law suits, or even worse. Could PETA actually be hoping for another catastrophe in the Preakness just to prove their point? You can draw your own conclusions.
If they bothered to do their homework and joined together with Thoroughbred racing in its never-ending quest to provide the ultimate in safety for the horses, they could accomplish a lot more, and be of assistance to an industry with a $102-billion impact on the U.S. economy and which pays $1.9 billion in taxes to all levels of the government, It also provides income for 4.6 million Americans, 460,000 of whom are full-time employees. So, when PETA calls for racing to be banned, do they actually consider that rational or have they become such a fanatical organization that the millions of people who devote their lives to horses and Thoroughbred racing mean so little to them?
There is a graph in today’s Wall Street Journal that reads: “But the injury to Eight Belles, who placed second at the Derby, appears to have a genetic component. Both Barbaro and Eight Belles were descendants of Native Dancer, a 1950s thoroughbred whose racing career was cut short by leg injuries. This bloodline has an excellent track record of producing champions, but has been cited by breeders and equine experts for producing fragile horses.”
Other than the fact that Native Dancer raced through May of his 4-year-old campaign, the vast majority of horses today have Native Dancer somewhere in their pedigree, thus making that comment yet another born of ignorance. Singling Barbaro and Eight Belles out in such a manner is like saying that Hitler and Attila the Hun were evil because they descended from Cain.
But enough of PETA, protests, and poppycock. As tragic as Eight Belles’ death was, it shouldn’t diminish the performance by an undefeated horse who has defied so much logic he could very well be on the threshold of greatness. He, obviously, is not there yet with only four starts, and one defeat can quickly bring him back among the mortals. But so far, he looks to be a horse unlike any we’ve seen in a long time. Dare we mention him in the same breath as Spectacular Bid, but if there is one comparison that can be made with The Bid at this infantile stage of his career it’s that he appears to have no flaws and can beat you from anywhere in any manner. As of now, no one has been able to come close to him. What will happen when or if one does look him in the eye? That’s something we have no way of knowing.
And we must also question the caliber of horses he’s been facing. Whether he is as remarkable a horse as he appears or just so much faster than his opponents on this year’s Triple Crown trail we’ll have to wait to find out. There will be a new group of shooters taking aim at him in the Preakness, several with tremendous potential in their own right. Another victory in Baltimore and this gifted colt will begin his ascent up Mt. Olympus.
If he does get past the Preakness, can a son of Boundary actually win the Belmont Stakes (gr. I)?
So far, Big Brown has even defied his pedigree. Boundary was a sprinter as a racehorse and a sire of sprinters and milers. But he is inbred to Damascus and Round Table and also to the top-class English-bred mare Rough Shod. Having already won at 10 furlongs, can he continue to stretch out to 1 1/2 miles? Sometimes, there is more to staying power than stamina.
Several weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby, we received a phone call from Marianna Haun, who has studied Thoroughbred genetics for the past 15 years and has been working with Dr. Fred Fregin, who’s been measuring horses’ hearts for 40 years. Haun’s second book is about to published, titled, “The X Factor: Solving the Mystery of Secretariat’s Heart.”
Haun called to say that Big Brown has inherited his broodmare sire Nureyev’s heart, one of the most superior she’s ever come across, and she had no doubt he would easily get the mile and a quarter of the Derby.
“My work began because of my quest to understand the amazing heart found in Secretariat at his autopsy,” she said following the Derby. “When I saw Big Brown, I recognized the similarity or family resemblance in him to horses expressing the Nureyev X chromosome. In measuring thousands of horses, we have learned to recognize family characteristics that travel with certain heartlines. We had identified this Nureyev X with its family resemblance and the extraordinary heart in his daughter Miesque and her sons. Big Brown bears a strong resemblance to Miesque and to Nureyev. This indicates that his dam, Mien, gave him the X chromosome she inherited from her sire. He is inbred to the Northern Dancer line which carries both speed and power from both his sire and dam. When the genetic spin of the wheel gives you those elements, combined with a heart the size of Secretariat, the results of the Kentucky Derby are not surprising.
“When we measured Miesque’s son, Kitalpha, we found the largest heart Dr. Fregin has seen in more than 40 years of measuring. It was the same size as Secretariat’s. Kitalpha bears a very close resemblance to his dam, Nureyev, and to Big Brown. So we know that the extraordinary heart of Nureyev is beating in Big Brown.”
Make of this what you wish, but any keys that can possibly unlock the mysteries of Big Brown are welcome.
Other Derby thoughts
The horse I had on top of my Derby Dozen for the past three weeks, Monba, finished last, beaten over 50 lengths. Sometimes, being a contrarian and looking for a price can bite you in the behind. This looked like a good opportunity for Todd Pletcher to sneak into the Derby at the last minute and catch everyone by surprise after saddling five “live” horses last year. We figured Monba would be totally ignored, despite winning the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), and had room for further improvement. Well, he was ignored, going off at 31-1, and as it turned out, deservedly so.
We took a lot of abuse for having Monba on top, and again, deservedly so. Heck, we even got it from Big Brown’s minority owner Paul Pompa Jr., who claimed we didn’t have faith in Big Brown and kiddingly (we think) mocked our Monba madness. Should a lowly scribe who strives to be objective “have faith” in someone else’s horse? That seems a bit ethereal, and we did rave about Big Brown on numerous occasions, especially after watching him blow out three furlongs. But this was, and is, all in fun between two fellow Jerseyites. When Pompa inquired in not so many words whether we have now officially joined the Big Brown benediction and we answered in the affirmative, he extended his hand and warmly welcomed us into the flock. Bless him.
Getting back to Monba, we even went against our own rule of never picking a horse who did not have a workout at Churchill Downs. He did win at Churchill last year, so we overlooked that. Bad move.
Whatever the reason for Monba’s dreadful performance – perhaps he just gets intimidated when he gets banged around in heavy traffic and calls it a day – we still believe he’s a talented horse. But things apparently have to go his way. We’re not going to second-guess the move. We took a shot and it didn’t work. On to the next one.
On a brighter note, our overwhelming selection based on works and gallops, Denis of Cork, ran a big race to finish third at 27-1, so we’ll take some consolation from that.
Speaking of working at Churchill Downs, for the third year in a row the first three finishers in the Derby had at least one work at Churchill. Since finishing second in the Derby with 30-1 shot Bluegrass Cat, who had two works at Churchill, Pletcher has insisted on doing all his training over the Polytrack at Keeneland. There is little doubt that Keeneland is a great place to train a horse, but Pletcher is now 0-for-7 using that strategy, with all seven of his horses finishing off the board, two of them running last. They included the winners of the Blue Grass, Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Illinois Derby, Fountain of Youth, and Gotham, and the Blue Grass, Tampa Bay Derby, and Robert Lewis runners-up. Does that mean no horse will ever win the Derby training at Keeneland without having a work at Churchill Downs? Of course not. It’s just a statistic worth noting.
Returning to Big Brown’s :35 2/5 blowout two days before the race, credit Rick Dutrow for going back to the old school of training and keeping his horse sharp. Most of the other leading contenders were given their final Derby work anywhere from six to nine days out, none of them longer than five furlongs. Welcome to Derby training light.
Remember the good old days – well, not that old – when horses actually ran in both the Derby and Preakness? Now, it seems as if most everyone is afraid to bring their horses back in two weeks. There’s nothing wrong with being conservative and taking the safe approach if a horse appears to be fragile, but let’s also remember that the first two finishers in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I) were the only two horses to compete in all three Triple Crown races.
Another indication that trainers are treating the Derby like any other race: can anyone remember two horses getting blinkers on for the first time in the Derby and two horses getting blinkers off? Those moves certainly didn’t work, but how about Dutrow putting front wraps on Big Brown for the first time? Another bold move that the colt shrugged off, just as he has shrugged off two straight dreaded outside posts -- in the Kentucky Derby and Florida Derby -- and running in the Kentucky Derby off only three career starts. Have we mentioned the word freak yet?