Haskin Belmont Wrap: Why Down on Brown?

Haskin Belmont Wrap: Why Down on Brown?
Photo: Rick Samuels
Big Brown training prior to the Belmont (gr. I).
This is not about Rick Dutrow or Kent Desormeaux or Michael Iavarone. They’ve been beaten up enough. This is mostly about the victim many people seem to have forgotten: Big Brown, who has fallen out of favor quicker than Roger Clemens. The question is: why?

The only comment we’ll make on Dutrow is in response to all those who keep referring to his ego. Dutrow may offend people by making impulsive statements that many perceive as outrageous, but they’re about his horses. That’s not ego. Each day, Dutrow made it a point to say that anyone could train Big Brown. His job was only to stay out of his way and not screw it up. You could hardly call that ego. As for his so-called trash talking of Casino Drive, the colt’s racing manager, Nobutaka Tada, laughed at it and actually thought it was “funny” and “entertaining.” If he wasn’t offended by it why should anyone else be offended? In Dutrow’s mind, he was simply saying what he believed, period. That’s Dutrow.

On the other hand, his comments about John Servis and Smarty Jones’ work before the Belmont were uncalled for and not even based on truth, and I would imagine he’d want to take that back if he could. When someone like Dutrow speaks to the press for hours and hours, something is going to come out that shouldn’t. How many comments would Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama like to take back after a year and a half of speeches?

OK, so you don’t like Dutrow. He is what he is, which is different from everyone else. He talks from the gut and you either accept him or you don’t. So, you feel Kent Desormeaux gave Big Brown a bad ride and shouldn’t have eased him in such an abrupt manner and fought with him down the stretch. Only he knows why he did it, and his comments afterward, instead of providing an explanation, were all over the place, especially the one comment that there was nothing physically wrong with the horse; it just wasn’t his day. He should either offer a definitive reason why he pulled him up in such dramatic fashion or admit he made a mistake and acted hastily. Either way, it will be accepted and everyone can move on, just as Dutrow and Desormeaux have moved on following some verbal darts thrown by Dutrow about the ride.

As for Iavarone, he’s never claimed to be a saint, and with IEAH Stables, despite their corporate image, you can’t totally discount the much-needed veterinary hospital they are currently building across from Belmont Park or the many charities they’ve donated to. This is not a defense of anyone, just a prelude to the negativity surrounding Big Brown.

Whatever you feel about Big Brown’s connections, how can you not like the horse after all the excitement he provided and all he accomplished and overcame? There are people who don’t like Steve Asmussen or Jess Jackson for whatever reason but love Curlin, despite his minority owners being in jail. I never heard anyone say they didn’t like Affirmed because his owner, Lou Wolfson, once spent nine months in a minimum-security prison for conspiracy and illegal stock sales.

Are we that unforgiving when it comes to Big Brown that one bad race negates five spectacular victories? No one knows why he ran so poorly in the Belmont, but from the number of theories circulating around, it sure took a lot to get him beat.

If you feel Big Brown’s accomplishments are diminished because he was on the steroid Winstrol, you’d be surprised how many top horses are on Winstrol, including some big names who get much larger doses than Big Brown. Does that make it right? Of course not, but getting Winstrol once a month did not make Big Brown the superhorse many people once thought he was and still may be. If it did, we’d have barnfuls of superhorses. We should just ban all steroids already and clean out this latest snake pit before it becomes too dangerous to handle.

The 2008 Triple Crown will be about Big Brown long after all the controversies surrounding his human connections fade away, as they do in other sports. Did anyone hear any boos for admitted steroid user Jason Giambi when he hit a game-winning homer with two outs in the ninth inning against the Blue Jays two days before the Belmont?

The one agonizing aspect of the Belmont is the mystery surrounding Big Brown’s performance. We’ve heard many theories, and that is what they will remain. No one will ever know for sure why a horse that personified perfection suddenly came apart at the seams. Was it the deep track, the stifling heat, getting rank early in the race, the traffic and bumping going into the first turn, acting up in the holding barn, missing four days of training, possibly being dehydrated, sweating between his legs and not much on his body, breaking awkwardly, possibly getting spooked by the starter in a blue jacket and white pants standing right on the racetrack,? It likely was a combination of occurrences that led to his shocking performance.

Here is one person’s theory which of those is most prominent, and it is a theory that has been shared by others in the last few days. Dutrow does not share it, and does not wish to comment on it, but differences of opinion are what make racing such a passionate sport.

I’m wary of horses who are attempting to sweep the Triple Crown having only one easy five-furlong breeze between the Preakness and Belmont. That doesn’t mean they can’t, I’m just wary, based on what history has taught us. Smarty Jones had one slow seven-furlong breeze and came up a bit short in the Belmont. Did that contribute to his defeat? Maybe not by itself, but the horse did refuse to relax when pressured early, which wasn’t the case in the Derby and Preakness.

I’m certainly not comparing Big Brown to Secretariat, but in between the Preakness and Belmont, Big Red breezed six furlongs in 1:12 1/5 in the slop on May 27, worked a mile in 1:34 4/5 on June 1, and breezed a half in :46 3/5 two days before the race. And that was more the norm than having only one little five-furlong breeze. All our Triple Crown winners had strong works before the Belmont. If a horse did what Secretariat did now, everyone would jump down the trainer’s throat. But history has shown, that’s how you win the Triple Crown. I don’t necessarily mean working that fast, but having at least two strong works and keeping the horse on the roll he’s been on and not letting him come off his adrenaline high prematurely. You want him to come off it after the Belmont when you can let him down slowly. Winning the Triple Crown is not about freshness; it’s about toughness.

It is very possible those missed training days proved more costly than people think, because it wasn’t until then that Big Brown started getting too tough to even walk around the shed row and was crawling out of his skin. Coming off the track one morning he was bucking and hard to handle. Remember, the quarter crack came after a week of little activity, so he went 17 days following the Preakness without working. He became too wound up and it continued all the way to race day in the holding barn and on the track. That’s not want you want to see from a professional horse like Big Brown before a mile and a half race. His strength was his ability to settle and relax, and those missed days and having only one easy breeze in three weeks most likely lit a fire in him that caused him to bubble over on race day. Had his work not been postponed until Tuesday of race week because of the quarter crack, Dutrow, if he so desired, could have blown him out the day before or the day of the race to take the nervous edge off him.

I believe that, combined with a tiring track, the sweltering heat, and the other aforementioned factors, is what did him in. Under the circumstances, after becoming rank right after the break, the best thing would have been to let the colt go to the lead or sit right off Da’ Tara’s flank along the inside if you’re afraid of getting caught up in a fast pace, which rarely happens in the Belmont. Secretariat sat off Sham along the rail and basically outsprinted everyone home. The best place to get a headstrong horse to relax going a mile and a half is on the lead where you’re in control and not subjected to a quirky pace, which often results in an oddly run race.

So, why did I pick Big Brown to win? Because I thought he was so much better than everyone else he could overcome it with a good trip, and felt maybe he’d settle down by race day. Assuming that was the main cause of his defeat, and it’s just a theory, he obviously couldn’t overcome it, so I was wrong. But I still strongly believe the real Big Brown would have won by a pole.

Big Brown will be back. When he does there won’t be any UPS trucks delivering bales of hay; there won’t be any more photos with Hooters girls; there won’t be any more hordes of media, there won’t be any more foregone conclusions; there won’t be any more trash talking. By August, all we’ll have is Big Brown, who has already proven that’s plenty.

Shortly after Big Brown suffered his quarter crack, he was presented a hand-made poster by a young girl named Lucy, who drew a picture of the horse and wrote in crayon: “Dear Big Brown, I heard you were feeling down. Get better soon. Win the Triple Crown.” Attached to the poster, right next to the horse, was a brightly colored Band-Aid.

Right now, we could use that Band-Aid, and what it represented, to heal a wound far deeper than Big Brown’s injury.

 

 

 

 

 

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