Reprinted from Blood-Horse magazine
Anyone expecting a “Brown Out” in the 133rd Preakness Stakes (gr. I) May 17 instead received a jolt of electricity from America’s newest superstar, Big Brown, whose powerful surge rocked Pimlico Race Course and sent everyone leaving Old Hilltop with stars in their eyes.
This time the beacon of light shining down on Big Brown was not dimmed by tragedy as it had been two weeks earlier in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), when the filly Eight Belles finished second, but broke down while galloping out and had to be euthanized. This time it was all about Big Brown. After 30 years, it appears as if the Triple Crown trophy finally will be taken out of mothballs, polished off, and actually presented to honor a horse as he enters the pantheon of immortals.
That same image has been seen several times in the past three decades following a Kentucky Derby and Preakness sweep, only to dissipate down that long, grueling final quarter-mile of the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). But this time seems different, because Big Brown seems different. The son of Boundary—Mien, by Nureyev, appears to have been snatched right out of some old movie, in which a mythical-like steed performs feats so unique they could only be conceived by a Hollywood scriptwriter. Here is a brown horse to rival the Black Stallion, Big Red, and the Gray Ghost.
Following Big Brown’s easy 5 1/4-length victory in the second leg of the Triple Crown, Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens, who came within three-quarters of a length of sweeping racing’s prestigious triad with Silver Charm in 1997, attempted to compare Big Brown with the greats of the past and the exceptional horses he has ridden, but was unable to.
“I’ve seen the great ones who were not in my era on tape, and I rode horses that I considered great ones, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Stevens, who now serves as an adviser for Big Brown’s majority owner, IEAH Stables, which owns the colt in partnership with Paul Pompa Jr.
All Big Brown did in the Preakness was remain undefeated in five career starts, winning eased up in the final furlong and still coming home his final three-sixteenths in :19.08 against a strong headwind, which ranks among the fastest closing fractions in Preakness history. He has dominated his opponents each time, winning by an average margin of nearly eight lengths. After overcoming the far outside posts in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby, Big Brown drew post 7 in the field of 13 (Behindatthebar was a late scratch), giving his opponents and few detractors some cause for optimism that he might not appreciate dirt getting kicked in his face for the first time. But as trainer Rick Dutrow said, “This horse overcomes everything. Every time he’s run he has amazed everyone who has watched him.”
Following the Preakness, IEAH co-president Mike Iavarone said, “I’m awestruck. That was mind-boggling. Anybody want to worry about him getting dirt kicked in his face now?”
Walking back to the barn after the race, Dutrow still couldn’t believe he had returned to his home state of Maryland with a horse this special. “Just a crazy, crazy, crazy horse,” he said. “Walking over to the paddock, he looked like he was falling asleep, I swear to God. I’ve never been around a horse like this.”
But Big Brown’s victory was not just about superlatives and braggadocio. For jockey Kent Desormeaux, who came within a nose of winning the Triple Crown 10 years ago with Real Quiet, and his wife, Sonia, it meant another day of sunshine and enduring images reflected in the eyes of their 9-year-old son Jacob, who is slowly losing his sight due to a genetic disorder called Usher syndrome, which also has caused him deafness since birth.
“Jacob thinks it’s one big party,” Sonia Desormeaux said after the race. “What he’s so excited about is that because of his dad’s win in the Preakness he won’t have homework for an entire week. His second-grade teacher said there would be no homework if Jacob’s dad won the Preakness. He’s doing phenomenal; he’s dealing with everything much better than we are. He has such a tremendous outlook on life. When he was 5, he looked out the back and said, ‘Mommy, look how beautiful it is outside. Today is going to be a wonderful day.’ What 5-year-old can appreciate that? He’s just completely changed life for all of us, and we’re so much more appreciative of every little thing. We just want Jacob to experience as much of life as possible and see everything while he’s able to.”
Jacob, who has cochlear implants to compensate for his hearing loss, cannot see at night due to night blindness and has already started to lose his peripheral vision. Sonia said nothing can be done, and doctors have already informed them that Jacob will be legally blind by the time he reaches early adulthood.
Through it all, Jacob remains all smiles, as he was after the Preakness. Sonia said Kent calls Jacob “the happiest kid in the world; nothing bothers him.”
Kent can also say the same thing about the 3-year-old upon whose back he sits. Big Brown is a happy kid and nothing yet has been able to bother him in the slightest. No matter the obstacles he faces, he not only overcomes them, he shrugs them off as if they are nothing more than minor inconveniences. Bad posts, quarter cracks, a burned heel, wide trips, missed gallops—none of it has mattered.
There is an Arabian proverb that goes: “The air of heaven blows between a horse’s ears.” Desormeaux has been privileged to feel that heavenly air as it blows between Big Brown ears, which often are as erect as the Twin Spires.
Following the Derby, Big Brown remained at Churchill Downs, where he was only able to get in three gallops due to bad weather. The rest of the mornings he either walked or jogged. The colt’s arrival at Pimlico on the Wednesday night before the race was eagerly anticipated, and despite getting in a little after 8 o’clock, a throng of photographers, TV cameramen, and reporters were there to greet him.
Also waiting was Iavarone, along with adviser Nick Sallusto. Iavarone received a phone call from Dutrow, who traveled with the horse from Kentucky, telling him they were five minutes away. “Rick said they’ve got a police escort in front of them and a police escort behind them. He doesn’t know whether it’s for the horse or if he’s getting arrested,” Iavarone said. “I’m telling you, they should do a reality series on Rick. If we win the Preakness I can promise you the Belmont party will be another world. We’re gonna take Rick’s normal parties to another level.
“But people don’t get a chance to see Rick’s other side. I’ve never seen him in a zone like he is now. He hasn’t left this horse’s side since the allowance win (March 5 at Gulfstream Park). He called me and said, ‘I want 24-hour security the second the horse gets off the van to the second he leaves Baltimore.’ ”
Just then, sirens could be heard nearby. “Here it is; that’s them,” Iavarone said.
So began the next step in the Big Brown odyssey.
After the colt galloped on Thursday, overnight rains forced Dutrow to jog him Friday, with a scheduled quarter-mile blowout on the morning of the race if the track was in good shape, a move that had rival trainers scratching their heads. Who blows a horse out the morning of the Preakness, they asked. Rick Dutrow does.
Pretty soon, people will realize that when it comes to Dutrow and Big Brown, rules do not apply.
A field of 12 was entered for the Preakness, most of whom were running for second, according to their connections. One holdout who wasn’t sold just yet on Big Brown was Reade Baker, trainer of Kentucky Bear, third in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) in his third career start.
“Let’s not anoint him just yet,” Baker said. “He was the best of the horses in the Derby on a very specific racetrack, but this is a different day, a different racetrack, and different horses. Who knows what could happen?”
Baker was watching his filly Bear Now gallop the morning of May 15 when Big Brown made his first appearance on the track. His reaction to the so-called wonder horse was short and simple. “Well, he’s brown,” he said.
Dutrow admitted he wasn’t happy about bringing Big Brown back in only two weeks off the Derby, but still promised that if the colt broke well and had a good trip, there was no one who could beat him.
With the track drying out overnight, Big Brown went out at 5:40 a.m. for his quarter-mile blowout, which was accomplished with the utmost ease. The colt, who loves taking in everything around him, spent most of the morning and afternoon peering out of his stall as usual.
Sent off as the 1-5 favorite, Big Brown, who was bred in Kentucky by Gary Knapp’s Monticule, broke alertly and cruised up to the lead, with Riley Tucker and Gayego moving up on his outside. Kentucky Bear stumbled coming out of the gate and dropped back to last, costing him all chance. Going into the first turn, Gayego went charging to the lead, opening up by two lengths, as Big Brown settled in second along the inside.
Nearing the backstretch, Edgar Prado moved Riley Tucker outside Big Brown. Desormeaux, not wanting to get trapped in a box and have dirt kicked back in Big Brown’s face, grabbed a tight hold of the reins and pulled back hard, allowing Riley Tucker to clear him. Many horses would have resented that kind of restraint, but Big Brown, as usual, remained relaxed and did not fight Desormeaux. Once Riley Tucker cleared him, Desormeaux eased Big Brown to the outside. “My job for that first half-mile was to keep his face clean,” Desormeaux said.
Down the backstretch, Desormeaux kept Big Brown about four to five paths off the rail, just waiting to pounce on Gayego and Riley Tucker. Kentucky Bear made a big move along the inside to reach contention, but his earlier mishap took its toll and he would wind up a well-beaten sixth.
After fractions of :23.59, :46.81, and a solid 1:10.48, Desormeaux took a look under his right arm to survey the situation behind him. He let out a notch and ranged up alongside the two leaders, and when he pulled the trigger turning for home, the result was dramatic, as Big Brown exploded away from his rivals in a flash.
With Desormeaux throwing three crosses on the reins just to keep the colt running straight, Big Brown continued to open up. After looking back again and seeing no one threatening, Desormeaux wrapped up on Big Brown, and the colt merely coasted to the wire, winning eased up the final furlong. His time of 1:54.80 could have been much faster had he been asked even in the slightest. No Preakness winner ever came home that fast winning that easily. As Big Brown walked into the winner’s circle, the only sign he had run was the mud on his bandages. Hardly a vein was showing, which is amazing for a horse who had just run 1 3/16 miles.
Big Brown, who has now defeated a total of 29 different horses in the Derby and Preakness, will be only the fourth horse ever, along with Majestic Prince, Seattle Slew, and Smarty Jones , to attempt to sweep the Triple Crown while undefeated. Only Seattle Slew has succeeded.
Macho Again, the improving winner of the Derby Trial, rallied to finish second, a half-length over Icabad Crane, who was coming off a victory in the Federico Tesio Stakes over the Pimlico surface. Racecar Rhapsody was fourth, 41?4 lengths ahead of Stevil.
“We just got beat by a monster,” said Macho Again’s rider, Julien Leparoux.
Speaking of monsters, the subject of Casino Drive was brought up to Dutrow after the race. The Japanese-owned and -trained son of Mineshaft is coming off a runaway victory in the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) in only his second career start. He was brought to the U.S. after an 11 1/2-length maiden romp in Japan in an attempt to become the third straight Belmont Stakes winner from his dam, Better Than Honour, who also has produced Jazil and Rags to Riches.
Dutrow said he’d love to train Casino Drive, but didn’t feel he could beat Big Brown. “All the Japanese people think that Godzilla is dead,” Dutrow said. “But they’re gonna find out he’s not dead; he’s here.”
One person who agrees that Big Brown is special is Kenny McPeek, trainer of Racecar Rhapsody. “We had a feeling when we ran against him in Florida that we were in the presence of greatness,” he said.
Even the stubborn Baker finally became a believer. “I guess we know now that Big Brown is the real deal,” he said.
Richard Schiavo, co-president of IEAH, said he was speechless, but managed to find a few words to describe the stable’s good fortune in stumbling upon the proverbial mother lode.
“It’s better to be lucky than good, so I’ll take it,” he said. “This is a game of luck, but this horse is a freak. You don’t know what he can do; it’s scary."
Dutrow, who stables at Aqueduct, said Big Brown would be shipped to Belmont Park and take up residence in Bobby Frankel’s barn, requesting that Frankel put him in Empire Maker ’s old stall. Frankel saddled the son of Unbridled to win the 2003 Belmont.
“It’s going to be hectic here, but I couldn’t say no to him,” Frankel said. “Rick would do it for me. I’ve already gotten calls from the Associated Press and some lady from Baltimore. Why are they calling me? It’s not my horse.
“I know this crop of 3-year-olds doesn’t look strong, but you can’t blame the horse. He’s a super horse; maybe one of the greats of all time. I don’t go back to the old-time great horses, but I can see him being put in the same class as the Secretariats and the Spectacular Bids. He’s unbelievable. If nothing unforeseen happens, I can see him winning the Belmont by 15 lengths.
“Having quarter cracks was a blessing, because he would have wound up running on the soft turf at Monmouth (in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf). That’s what they bought him for. They got real lucky.”
So, the second leg of the Triple Crown is in the history books, and now comes the third and most important chapter. As Dutrow was crossing the track on his way back to the barn after the race, he looked down the stretch and reality hit him. He turned to his friend, Dave Levine, and said, “Do you believe it? We’re going for the Triple Crown.”
A short while earlier, Sonia Desormeaux had tried to sort out her emotions. “I’m numb, completely numb,” she said. “It’s overwhelming to be here again after 10 years. This time around it’s been different for everyone.”
Just then, Jacob said to her, “Mommy, I wish Daddy would buy Big Brown.” Little did he realize that his father had bought him something far more valuable.