Big Brown makes his first start in a graded stakes in the March 29 Florida Derby (gr. I).<br><a target="blank" href="">Order This Photo</a>

Big Brown makes his first start in a graded stakes in the March 29 Florida Derby (gr. I).
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Unknowns Big Brown, Tomcito Set to Clash

Normally a grade I race like the Florida Derby would be pretty clear-cut, filled mostly with horses who have proven themselves. Not so this year; not with unknowns such as Big Brown and Tomcito, two of the most intriguing Triple Crown hopefuls seen in quite a while.

Their respective journeys to date have been so far off the beaten path no one has a clue what is going to happen when they meet at Gulfstream on Saturday. Not only are their true talents still unknown, they will be going up against two other unproven colts with tremendous potential, Hey Byrn and Face the Cat, as well as the highly regarded Fountain of Youth (gr. II) runner-up Elysium Fields and Sam F. Davis winner Fierce Wind.

Big Brown has already set a torch to the Triple Crown trail with his spectacular victory in an off-the-turf allowance race March 5, which he won under wraps by 12 3/4 lengths, but that was only his second career start. His first came in an 11 1/4-length romp in a maiden turf race at Saratoga last August.

Anyone hearing the excitement in trainer Rick Dutrow’s voice when discussing Big Brown would think this is going to be racing’s next superstar, and he’s not surprised how much hype the son of Boundary has been getting.

“In his first start this year, he took our breath away turning for home, so I can see how people feel the same way. I can’t blame anybody for getting excited about him,” said Dutrow, who took over the training of Big Brown after majority interest in the colt was sold by owner Paul Pompa to IEAH Stables. “I got to tell you, everybody’s who’s ever been on this horse has loved him, and that’s something I pay a whole lot of attention to. When (Kent) Desormeaux got off him this morning (after breezing five furlongs in a bullet :59 1/5) he said, ‘Man, Rick, I got goose bumps. This is so exciting.’

Kent said he’s got one of the longest strides he’s ever seen on a horse and that he feels like silk, and it’s a tremendous feeling to be on him. He does things effortlessly, and in his stall he’s very unassuming and just a pleasure to be around. At this point, I’ve never had a horse like him who’s made me catch my breath like he has. I get so excited just talking about him.”

If there is one thing in particular that had Dutrow concerned it’s the two quarter cracks Big Brown has suffered on each of his front feet, and although he feels that is behind him, it’s still in the back of his mind.

“It’s something I’m always going to be concentrating on to try and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Dutrow said. “But right now it’s as good as it’s ever going to get. His feet have been cold and I’ve been very happy with them. When we first got him at Aqueduct, I was able to breeze him one time on the grass for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, but he came out of the work with a quarter crack and it took time for him to get over it. We got it all fixed up and started him training at Palm Meadows. It seemed he was a little better on the turf, but one morning (on Dec. 22) I breezed him six furlongs in company on dirt with Diamond Stripes, who’s a very good horse, and Big Brown just had Diamond Stripes the whole way. He went in 1:13 3/5, and for him to outwork Diamond Stripes I knew he was just as good on the dirt. That was fun to watch.”

Big Brown then came up with another quarter crack and Dutrow was forced to miss more time with him. “It took us a long while to get than one fixed, too,” he said.

As for the Florida Derby, Dutrow said, “I know he’s got to run back in 24 days, which he’s never done before, and he’s got to run a mile and an eighth on the dirt against some good horses, which he hasn’t done either. So, he’s got to pass a whole lot of tests coming up. But we feel very confident with our chances, especially right now. It doesn’t matter who’s in the race; we’re just looking for our horse to go out there and run his race. If he does, we feel they have us to beat.

“We’re ready to run him back in 24 days against better horses, because he came out his last race good, he hasn’t missed a second of training, and he’s been breezing unbelievable. He ran a “3” on the Sheets and some people say you’re not supposed to run them back in 24 days; they’re supposed to react to that. But sometimes with a young 3-year-old who has had only two starts, you might be OK.”

Big Brown may be a mystery horse, but Tomcito is even more of an unknown, having made all his starts in Peru, a country not exactly known for producing quality horses in the United States. But then there has never been a horse who has won the Peruvian Derby at a mile and a half and another major stakes at a mile and a quarter, both times defeating 3-year-olds while still officially a 2-year-old. Tomcito has won four of his five starts in Peru by an average margin of almost 10 lengths, while being trained by Juan Suarez, the uncle of the colt’s trainer in America, Dante Zanelli.

It was Zanelli who had picked out the son of Street Cry for a mere $7,500 at the Keeneland September yearling sale for Peruvian businessmen Omar Mahchi and Esteban Ripamonti, Since being sent to Zanelli at Palm Meadows training center, Tomcito has turned in a series of sharp works for the Florida Derby, including a bullet five-furlong drill in :58 4/5 in his last work.

“The one thing that’s hard to measure is the level of competition he was facing in Peru,” Zanelli said. “They’ve had a number of good horses that have gone to Peru the last couple of years, many of them coming from Argentina. I think Tomcito has a lot of class and is very special and we feel confident going into Saturday’s race that he has the ability to prove he belongs here. Not only did he win sprints early on and defeat older horses in the classics, he did it with eye-catching performances, destroying his competition. In his only defeat (a second in the Peruvian 2,000 Guineas), it was a 14-horse field and he had a troubled trip. Now we have to see Saturday where he really stands.”

Zanelli has been buying horses for years, and feels gratified to have picked out a horse of this caliber for such a cheap price.

“I’ve been buying horses for low-budget owners and trying to find a special horse for them,” he said. “To have a horse of this magnitude is very satisfying; it’s everybody’s dream. This horse could be the people’s horse. Everybody’s been behind him, so hopefully this Saturday he can have a big showing. There are a lot of people at the sales who can’t afford to buy the six- and seven-figure horses, and they’re looking for a low-end horse, so it’s a dream come true. There’s nothing more satisfying than making a lot of people happy. Regardless of making yourself look good, it gives you hope than everybody can play this game at the same level.

“I try to find horses that I can market the best, and Tomcito had such a long stride. Yes, he was a little wide in front, and you can find some faults with him, but all in all he has very good balance and I felt he’d work out well for the kind of track he’d be experiencing in Peru.”

As for facing another exciting, but unknown colt like Big Brown, as well as other quality horses, Zanelli said, “He has the experience, and the way he’s been training I think he’ll be closer to the pace than he was in Peru. The way Big Brown moves on the track, and how powerful he was going by those two frontrunners in his last race, it makes you believe he can be anything. If he wins, people are going to compare him to Curlin, just like they compare Tomcito to Canonero. And it could be true. He could be like Canonero and Big Brown could be like Curlin. That’s what makes it exciting.

“Then you have Nick’s (Zito) horse, Fierce Wind, who has the experience and has won his last three races. He’s definitely in my opinion the horse to beat. Big Brown is one of the horses to beat, but he still has to prove himself, the same way we have to prove ourselves.”

Zanelli said he could have picked an easier spot than the Florida Derby, but felt it was time to find out exactly what they had.

“We had considered either running in the Florida Derby or going to Dubai for the UAE Derby (UAE-II), with the Holy Bull (gr. III) and the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) as secondary targets,” Zanelli said. “It was just a matter of getting the horse ready. We needed to let him get used to things at Palm Meadows and get him going. Sometimes, it can take three to six months to get a horse used to a new environment and different weather. Looking it over, the horse has responded to everything we’ve asked him, and we gave him what we thought was reasonable time to get adjusted. My uncle came up from Peru a couple of times to look at the horse and make sure he was moving forward. We feel he’ll be ready for the Florida Derby.

 “We could have run a week earlier in the Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II), and that would have been a better scenario competition-wise, but we didn’t want to travel at a time when we’ve built him up to a level where he’s very comfortable and doing well. So we felt, let’s stay home and take it one step at a time. It’s a tough scenario going into a grade I in America. It’s not an easy thing to do and we understand that, but we feel we have a special horse. The only way to know for sure is to run him against these horses and see where we stand. We’re running to win, but all we’re looking for is to have him to run a race where we feel he can be a contender on the first Saturday in May.”