One minute, Mike Iavarone was all smiles after watching Big Brown work a sharp six furlongs in 1:12 4/5 over the Aqueduct turf course in company with stablemate Kip Deville on Oct. 13, and the next he was announcing the colt’s retirement.
The excitement of the impending showdown with Curlin in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) gave way to the agony of seeing Big Brown’s career come to an abrupt end after the son of Boundary returned with a good portion of his right front hoof and the bulb of his foot torn off, the result of hitting himself from behind.
Iavarone was devastated by the turn of events, as was trainer Rick Dutrow and all the partners, and it wasn’t until five hours later on a national teleconference that he was able to reflect on the injury and on Big Brown’s meteoric career.
“Today was a tough day,” Iavarone said. “The dream with this horse has always been to run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and it kills me to see it get this close and not happen. We put everything into this race, and this is a tremendous blow to the gut. My heart goes out to all the partners and to Thoroughbred racing fans. He was a one-in-a-million horse.
“There are going to be more Big Browns that come down the road and it’s up to all of us – the owners and the media – that when you do get a horse like this to continue to advertise and market him. Horses like Big Brown and Curlin are great for racing and this is the unfortunate part of the game; we all have to live it and experience it. This is the first time we’ve experienced something as devastating as this. As long as we can market and publicize these kinds of horses the game is going to be OK. You can see how this horse has crossed over into the mainstream media. It’s a headline story on ESPN.
“I brought my wife and my kids out, along with (minority owner) Paul Pompa and a few of my friends," Iavarone continued. "Everything seemed to go according to plan and we were all excited. Last night, my wife and I were up late and we were watching the replay of the Kentucky Derby, and all the lead-up to it, and it kind of brought a tear to my eye. I turned to my wife and said, ‘Well, it’s not over yet. We still have one more big one.’
“This morning couldn’t have started off any better and then it all changed. I had my daughter in my arms and I walked back across the main track and as I got back to the barn I saw a serious look on Rick’s (trainer Dutrow) face, but didn’t think anything of it. Then, Rick said, ‘I think we’re in big trouble with Big Brown.’ He showed me where the horse grabbed his quarter in a real bad spot and had taken off about a three-inch piece of flesh on the bulb of his foot I spoke to his blacksmitch, Alex (Leaf), and he said any chance of making the Breeders’ Cup was completely lost. So, unfortunately, we had no choice but to retire him.”
Iavarone paid tribute to Dutrow and the job he did with Big Brown.
“Rick got more out of this horse in my eyes than any trainer in the world would have,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever gotten to the bottom of Big Brown. What we were starting to see was his change over from his utter brilliance to his heart. Because of the issues we faced with him, his training was somewhat inconsistent, so he never had the ultimate conditioning that he had leading up to the Kentucky Derby. But his heart became as big as his physical abilities, and if we could have gotten to the point where he could have put the two together I think we would have seen something breathtaking.
“But it’s always been about the horse and his life after racing. Now is the time for us to reflect on all he’s done for us, and not to feel sorry for ourselves and wonder what could have been.”
As for immediate plans, Iavarone said Big Brown will remain at Aqueduct for about another month. “As he cooled out he was becoming more and more sore, and basically was reluctant to walk,” he said. “So, we expect the next few days to be pretty rough on him. First and foremost, we have to take care of him.
Iavarone said the main issue now is the risk of infection. “This was a pretty significant injury in regard to the tissue, and as long as we keep close touch and prevent infection, he should go on and live a happy life. Right now, there is nothing that can be done other than the natural process of healing and prevent infection. That’s the one variable that can be a problem. As long as we can prevent that he’ll heal. We have to clean out the area real good and give him as much antibiotics as possible.”
Iavarone would have loved to keep Big Brown in training, but economics and the logistics of partnerships made that unlikely.
“We took the deal with Three Chimneys because we felt that’s the place he belonged and where he’d be the happiest,” Iavarone said. “To experience the excitement that a horse like that gives you, I’d like to run him as an 8-year-old, but under the terms we structured with Three Chimneys, unfortunately, I’m not going to get the enjoyment of that. As a fan I naturally want horses to stick around forever, but I was in the unfortunate position of being a fan and an owner. I also have a partnership and have responsibilities to the rest of the owners, so as much of a fan as I am I also have to look at it as a business.”
One of the big disappointments is that the long-awaited showdown between Big Brown and Curlin will not happen, especially after all the exchange of words between the two camps.
“The banter that had gone between us was almost like professional wrestling,” Iavarone said. “Rick and I were having fun with it. We have no problems at all with Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen, and we think the world of their horse and their people. We were just creating some excitement and some anticipation for the race. Curlin is a special horse and I hope he makes it to the race. It’ll still bring tremendous intrigue. For me personally, I’m devastated. This match-up was everything an owner dreams of, and words cannot describe what it like to know it’s not going to happen.
“Curlin is great for the sport and if they want to give me a Curlin hat I’ll wear it. Curlin and Big Brown have carried the sport in the media, and we need Curlin to go out in the right way, especially with the Euros coming in. He’s representing America and I’m completely in Curlin’s corner and in the corner of Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen.”
In his seven victories from eight starts, Big Brown won at six different tracks and at five different distances over a fast dirt track, a firm turf course, and a “good” turf course. He was the only horse to win the Kentucky Derby from post 20 and received the highest Ragozin and Thoro-Graph numbers ever. He also became the first horse since 1915 to win the Derby with only three career starts.
The horses he defeated have come back to finish 1-3 in the Travers (gr. I), 1-3 in the Ohio Derby (gr. II), 1-2 in the Jim Dandy (Ggr. II), 1-3 in the Swaps Stakes (gr. II), 1-3 in the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), 1-3 in the Northern Dancer (gr. III), and first in King's Bishop (gr. I).