Big Brown, runaway winner of the Florida Derby (gr. I). <br><a target="blank" href="">Order This Photo</a>

Big Brown, runaway winner of the Florida Derby (gr. I).
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Coglianese Photos

Ky. Derby Trail: Hot Brown on Derby Menu

By now, just about every superlative has been used to describe Big Brown’s performance in the Florida Derby (gr. I). How many times do you think the word “freak” has been uttered since Saturday? Well, there is no doubt that the colt has accomplished freakish things in his brief career, but so did Curlin, and he couldn’t win the Derby off three career starts.

Curlin showed last year that the Run for the Roses is a whole different experience, especially for horses that inexperienced. Despite a 10-length romp in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) and a subsequent record-equaling victory in the Preakness, Curlin was unable to overcome the traffic and adversity of the Kentucky Derby.

That is not to say Big Brown will be unable to, but with only three career starts and quarter crack issues, it might be premature to hand him the roses just yet. With that said, Big Brown, who has had an unorthodox career to say the least, has indeed looked like a freak, even more so than Curlin in some ways, considering his lack of works and having his career interrupted twice. The buzz that has surrounded him since his spectacular allowance victory March 5 is now sounding more like a high-powered engine. Between the excitement he has generated and having a colorful character like Rick Dutrow training him, at least the Derby won’t be dull this year.

Big Brown did things in the Florida Derby that stamp him as special —  overcoming the 12-post; having to be used early, and getting bumped in the rear; setting torrid fractions of :22 3/5 and :45 4/5, while tossing his ears around, and still keep going; and winning under a hand ride, missing Brass Hat’s track record by .37 one-hundredths of a second. And he did all that with only one easy off-the-turf allowance score in six months and five works all year. In the allowance race, he ran the mile in 1:35 3/5 coming off only three works following his second quarter crack. Horses just aren’t supposed to do what he’s done.

The only odd thing was jockey Kent Desormeaux pulling on the left rein a total of seven times after the colt appeared to drift out slightly. Even as he  drifted back toward the rail, Desormeaux kept pulling on the left rein. At one point, Desormeaux’s butt went flying off the left side of the horse’s body before popping back over the saddle. When it did, Big Brown became a bit unbalanced and dipped his head and shoulder for one stride. It didn’t affect the stretch run; it just made for an awkward moment. After hitting him one time, Desormeaux hand rode him the rest of the way, with the two perfectly back in sync. All in all, it was an excellent ride by Desormeaux, breaking sharply and getting the colt to the lead without losing too much ground, and then letting him settle in stride down the backstretch.

So, where did racing’s newest phenom come from? Big Brown’s original sole owner, Paul Pompa Jr.,only bought the horse because he had his half-brother Snake River Canyon. Although Snake River Canyon, a son of Gulch, ran only one time for Pompa, he made a huge impression on trainer Patrick Reynolds, who told Pompa that the gelding was going to be his next Peeping Tom, the hard-knocking gelding who had won six stakes for Pompa and Reynolds, including the grade I Carter Handicap, while finishing second in the grade I Met Mile and Cigar Mile.

Reynolds claimed Snake River Canyon from Frank Brothers after his career debut for $62,500. In his first start for Pompa, a $75,000 claiming race, he fought off four horses to win by a neck, but was claimed back by Brothers. According to Reynolds, the horse became deathly ill after that and never won another race. Reynolds always thought of him as a promising horse who never was able to realize his potential.

Last April at the Keeneland April 2-year-old sale, Pompa noticed a half-brother to Snake River Canyon, by Boundary, in the catalog. Snake River Canyon was a smallish horse with not much constitution, so when Pompa asked Reynolds what he thought, he told him: “If the Boundary colt has got some size you should think about getting him.” Using the Hidden Brook team of Jack Brothers, Mark Roberts, Dan Hall, and Sergio de Sousa (trainer Danny Vella is another partner), Pompa had them check out the colt to see what they thought.

“He was a tall, leggy colt who had a very smooth stride and did it without a lot of effort,” de Sousa said. “He worked a quarter in about :21 2/5. We give Paul a range what we think a horse should be and whether we like it or don’t like it. He had sold as a yearling for $60,000 and we wound up getting him for $190,000, which was pretty close to the end of the range for a Boundary horse. Paul asked me about his pedigree and I told him it wasn’t that active, but he just might be a horse that makes his own pedigree.”

“We buy as a team, and collectively look at the horses,” Brothers said. “We come up with a short list together and keep narrowing it down. Big Brown was the only horse we bought at the sale. What we liked about him was that he was just getting in gear when he hit the wire and galloped out strong. And we were very impressed with way he moved in the ring. Paul is very game. When he steps up to the plate he’s looking to swing away.”

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So, Pompa swung away and hit one to the next county; and the ball still hasn’t come down. When Reynolds took over the training of Big Brown, the colt was very easy going and a “pleasure to work with.” It wasn’t until he started working with other horses that the competitive juices started flowing.

“As soon as he began working in company we could see he was definitely an alpha male-type,” Reynolds said. “He didn’t want the other horses near him. He would just sprint away from them in workouts – 2-year-olds, older horses, anything. He’d always want to get the better of whatever stablemate he was working with.

“At Saratoga, you have to break from the gate in company in order to get your gate card. I sent him over there with an older horse — a tough, hard-knocking $100,000 claimer. I told the two riders, ‘You just need to break so I can get a gate card for this horse. He’s ready to go.’ Well, they broke and Big Brown never let the other horse get in the workout. He just ran off from him. Five days later when his race came up I knew enough that I had to bet a few shekels on him. He had already worked liked a champ on the Oklahoma turf course, which is why we started him on the grass first time out.”

Big Brown destroyed his opposition, winning by 11 1/4 lengths, going 1 1/16 miles in 1:40 1/5. Grass or no grass, that sent prospective buyers rushing to the phone. One prominent trainer who watched the race live quickly offered $1 million, but wasn’t even in the ballpark.

Following the race, Reynolds had turned to Pompa and said, “I know the pedigree is a little weak, but this horse just ran a two-million-dollar race. Don’t sell him short.”

“I was preaching to the choir,” Reynolds said. “Paul is an owner who pretty much knows his way around the business market.”

At about the same time as the first offer, another offer came from a powerhouse operation for around $2 million. But after having X-rays taken, their veterinarian had an issue with the colt’s ankle, and although it was minor and would only cost him a few weeks, he recommended they pass.

“That’s OK, I’ll sell him for more money,” Pompa told Reynolds. “I’ll get a better deal.” That better deal came from IEAH Stables, who not only offered around $3.5 million, they allowed Pompa to retain 25% of the colt.

“It was a pretty savvy move on Paul’s part,” Reynolds said. “I applaud him for that. When they offer money like that for a horse that had only run once, on the turf, it was a no-brainer. He was able to take that money and put it back into the game, so we’ll keep going.”

There are unconfirmed reports that the night of the Florida Derby, the people who turned down the colt because of the X-rays made an offer for — are you sitting down? — $30 million. Once again, that is unconfirmed, but it came from several reliable sources, so make of it what you may.

So, that’s pretty much where we stand with racing’s new potential superstar. As one trainer put it, “Curlin’s spotlight didn’t last very long,” referring to the champ’s Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) victory four hours earlier.

Although Big Brown is by Boundary, a sprinter who has sired only sprinters and milers, it must be noted that Boundary is by Danzig, and his dam, Edge, is by Damascus out of the top-class stakes winner Ponte Vecchio, a daughter of Round Table. Big Brown’s dam, Mien, is by Nureyev (by Northern Dancer), out of a Lear Fan (by Roberto) mare. And Big Brown is inbred top and bottom to Damascus, Round Table, and Northern Dancer, giving him a Classic-heavy dosage profile of 4-7-23-2-0 and a 1.67 dosage index, for all those who still follow dosage.

If Big Brown does win the Derby, he’ll accomplish something that hasn’t been done in 93 years, which is win the Run for the Roses off only three career starts. The truth is, after seeing the Florida Derby, we have no idea what this horse is capable of doing. Some think he’s a lock in the Derby, others are taking a more cautious approach, and there are those who still are not willing to hop on his bandwagon just yet. That is the nature of the Derby. What he has going for him is his ability to beat you on the front end or sitting off the pace.

Racing legend and Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud, who bred, co-owned, and trained the immortal Dr. Fager, feels three races are sufficient for Big Brown. “He’s fit now to go a mile and a quarter,” Nerud said. “They just have to back off, give him a slow mile or seven-eighths work and a couple of half-miles between now and the Derby. I bred for only one thing – speed. If they have speed and they can carry it, you’ve got something. This horse has a very high cruising speed and he can carry it. That’s all the bottom he needs. And he’s a freak.”

There’s that word again, and from the man who bred and trained the biggest freak of them all.

Floating on Air

Congratulations to the connections of Florida Derby runner-up Smooth Air, especially trainer Bennie Stutts, for getting the colt to the race the right way. It was a training job that likely made Allen Jerkens proud. Following slow mile breezes in 1:47 and 1:45 3/5 at Calder, Stutts sent Smooth Air to Gulfstream, where the Florida-bred son of Smooth Jazz worked a super seven furlongs in 1:23 3/5. Back to Calder, the colt had his final prep four days out, breezing five furlongs in 1:02, going off slow and coming home his final eighth in :11 flat.

Off those series of works, Smooth Air, who many felt was more of a miler, ran a winning race in the Florida Derby. Had it not been for Big Brown, Smooth Air would have won by 7 1/2 lengths in a more than respectable 1:49 for the nine furlongs.

This may have been the best training job of the year by any trainer. Now, Stutts, 70, and owner Brian Burns of Mount Joy Stables have themselves a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender, proving that even in today’s world you can learn valuable lessons from the old school.

As for the unknown Peruvian powerhouse, Tomcito, his third-place finish, closing from last, should make him unknown no longer. Yes, he was well-beaten, and several of the top contenders ran terribly, but he did show enough to suggest that there are big things in his future. Going into the Kentucky Derby off this one race in almost six months might not be the wise thing to do, especially with the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) beckoning and the son of Street Cry having already won the Peruvian Derby at 1 1/2 miles as a 2-year-old. If they are intent on running in the Derby, perhaps a Poly prep in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) would be in order first. But this looks like a Belmont horse.

Elysium Fields likely cost himself a shot at the Derby by sweating profusely going to the gate and then coming apart at the seams after tracking the pace down the backstretch. This was more than lathering up on the neck. He was soaking wet all over his body, and that no doubt did him in, especially considering he came back after the race with an elevated temperature from overheating so badly. It’s a shame to lose that way, because this is a good horse who will bounce back from this for sure.

Flying low

So, at this late date, are there still any horses around who are low enough under the radar to take a shot on in the future book? There usually are, and this year is no different, especially with so many question marks regarding synthetic surfaces and lightly raced horses.

Here are several worth looking into:

King’s Silver Son – This rapidly improving gray ran a huge race off a maiden victory to finish a fast-closing second in the Rebel Stakes at 17-1. With all the attention on Steve Asmussen’s main Derby hope Pyro and, of course, Curlin, the son of Mizzen Mast has gotten lost in the vast Asmussen factory. Once a green colt who was still in the learning stages, he’s been maturing with every race. If he improves even a little off the Rebel, in which his Beyer number jumped from an 80 to a 94, he could be sitting on a big effort on May 3.

Atoned and Texas Wildcatter – Last year, Todd Pletcher came into the Derby with a star-laden quintet, all of whom fell flat on their face. This year, he’s been scraping and clawing his way to Louisville, trying to pick up small scraps wherever he can. So far, he’s barely gathered enough to merit a legitimate crack at the roses. But that could change Saturday when Texas Wildcatter and Atoned attempt to punch Pletcher’s Derby ticket. And both have a terrific shot to do it. Atoned, who has been discussed many times here, should improve enough off his second in the Tampa Bay Derby to give Denis of Cork a run for his money in the Illinois Derby (gr. II). Even another second would be good enough, because he’s on schedule to peak on the first Saturday in May.

Texas Wildcatter seemingly had the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) in the bag after unleashing a quick, but premature, move through the fog, only to get nailed on the wire by Visionaire. He’ll no doubt be handled better in Saturday’s Wood Memorial and should get the first jump on War Pass. If the 2-year-old champ doesn’t make a dramatic turnaround, then Texas Wildcatter could be the first one to pick up the pieces and will be tougher to handle this time. Pletcher also has On the Virg in the Santa Anita Derby, but he still has a lot to prove. On Sunday, Pletcher sent out Harlem Rocker, winner of his career debut  Feb. 14, to a three-quarter-length victory in a one-mile allowance race in 1:35 1/5, coming home his last quarter in :24 flat.

A favorite of ours from last year, Tale of Ekati, should also improve big-time in the Wood after a terrible start in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), but with only that race behind him, he’s way up against it as far as the Derby is concerned. He would need an extraordinary performance on Saturday to get back in the Derby picture. If he doesn’t make it to Louisville, watch out in Baltimore. He has been training sharply, working a half in :47 4/5 at Palm Meadows before shipping to New York.

Others to keep an eye on over the next two weeks who still are attractive prices include Blackberry Road (Arkansas Derby) and the all but forgotten Yankee Bravo (Santa Anita Derby). But the three to focus on are King’s Silver Son, Atoned, and Texas Wildcatter.

In other Derby news:

With so many owners and trainers looking at the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) through rose-colored glasses, you have to salute the connections of Lane’s End (gr. II) winner Adriano for being realists and sticking to their belief that the son of A.P. Indy is better suited to the grass and Polytrack and not suited to the frantic atmosphere of the Derby. They came to that conclusion when Adriano finished ninth, beaten 17 lengths, in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) in his dirt debut.

So, did Adriano really detest the dirt or did the excitable colt leave his race in the paddock after getting all worked up, or both? He even got a bit warm in the Lane’s End on a day where the wind chill factor was in the 20s. Because the colt can become unwound so easily, it was decided that the chaos of the Kentucky Derby was not something he’d handle very well. Down the road, don’t be surprised to see him win a major dirt stakes. Although he defeated a weak field in the Lane’s End, he did it like a top-class horse, regardless of the surface. Now we’ll see whether his connections become afflicted with a delayed case of Derby fever. We all know by now it is an annual epidemic that strikes most owners, and only the strong-willed are able to fend it off.

According to the Emirates Racing website, a post-race veterinary examination of Numanny, who finished last in the UAE Derby (UAE-II),  revealed that the colt was lame in his right hind leg, and that a veterinary certificate would be required before he is allowed to be entered again.

El Gato Malo remains sharp for the Santa Anita Derby, breezing five furlongs in a bullet :59 flat at Hollywood Park, fastest of 53 works at the distance. Georgie Boy also was sharp, breezing six furlongs in a bullet 1:12, co-fastest of 14 works along with Signature Move. Colonel John drilled six furlongs in 1:13 3/5 and followed that up with a another six-furlong work in 1:10 4/5. If you’re looking for a huge price on a horse who is capable of rebounding off a bad effort, take note of Coast Guard’s :58 4/5 work at Santa Anita.

Denis of Cork has taken up residence at Churchill Downs (remember Street Sense shipping in early last year) and proceeded to breeze five furlongs in :59 2/5. Monba continues to progress toward his return in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) or Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II), breezing a pair of half-miles in :49 and :51 1/5. Pyro worked six furlongs in 1:14 3/5 over Keeneland’s Polytrack for the Blue Grass Stakes. Anak Nakal, who’s been a disappointment this year, breezed a bullet half in :47 2/5, which could earn him one last shot in the Wood Memorial.

2007 Triple Crown revisited

If Curlin isn’t a ringing endorsement for keeping star 3-year-olds in training at 4 there never has been one. And it’s not even about the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) itself. With Well Armed, A.P. Arrow, and Great Hunter filling the second thru fifth spots, along with Asiatic Boy, who had never been 1 1/4 miles before, one would have expected Curlin to dominate the race, especially with proven international stars Premium Tap and Vermilion finishing way up the track and the first three finishers — Curlin, Asiatic Boy, and Well Armed — running 1-2-3 all the way around.

What was visually the highlight of the night was the sight of Curlin in the walking ring before the race, standing out like a battleship among a fleet of destroyers. You could have put three jockeys on his back and they still wouldn’t have reached his hind quarters. It would have been a terrible waste had a magnificent physical specimen like this, with so much untapped talent, been retired last year. One can only imagine what racing would be like now if Street Sense, Hard Spun , and Any Given Saturday were still in training.

With the Triple Crown approaching, it hardly seems like almost a year ago that we saw Curlin grow from a boy into a man at the three-sixteenths pole in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). Six months later, he was Horse of the Year, and five months after that, Horse of the World.