Validation for Big Brown, sport
BALTIMORE -- There was a sustained roar, equal parts exultation and relief, as Big Brown pulled away from his rivals in the Preakness at Pimlico on Saturday. Here was validation, not just for a colt who looks to be by far the best of his generation -- who now heads to the Belmont with a real chance to win the first Triple Crown in 30 years -- but also for a venerable sport that has spent the last two weeks defending itself against charges of animal cruelty. Big Brown's 5 ¼-length win did nothing to erase the horrible memory of the death of the filly Eight Bells in the Kentucky Derby, but by its very dominance, it did serve as a shining example of why the game is still played.
All week at Pimlico, the buzz around the race had been less about the prospects for a Triple Crown, than about the concern that the 133rd Preakness might feature another fatal breakdown. The fate of Eight Bells had occasioned broad calls for reform and regulation, all of which seemed to be building to a crescendo as post-time loomed on Saturday. Both ESPN and NBC conducted roundtable discussions about what was wrong with the sport and what could be done to save it, and the animal-rights group PETA showed up (albeit just 22 strong) to protest.
Enter Big Brown, who has now delivered three straight overpowering performances against the best three-year-olds in the country. If the quality of the 11 other horses he defeated on Saturday was mediocre, that was only because he has already beaten just about everybody worth beating. And in the Preakness, he beat his opponents with something very like arrogance. Jockey Kent Desormeaux had only to put on an exhibition of minimalist riding, never going to the whip and only urging his mount to run for about 100 yards -- all the room he needed to dismiss his fading rivals as the field entered the stretch. As Big Brown passed under the wire, Desormeaux had already wrapped up on him, saving some of the colt's energy for the mile and a half Belmont on June 7.
That's not to say the triumph was easy. If not for the quality of his rivals, you could make the case that Big Brown's victory was more impressive than his trouble-free win in Kentucky two weeks ago. On Saturday, the colt broke poorly, got stuck along the rail early and made contact with another horse while entering the backstretch. But he never flinched, a remarkable feat for a horse making just the fifth start of his short life. Those in racing who have been praying for a super horse may have been granted their wish.
So dominant has the colt been that his trainer, Richard Dutrow, isn't shy about expressing his confidence, which at times borders on outright arrogance. Dutrow spent the week before the Derby telling everybody in Louisville that he didn't see how his horse could lose, and he spent the moments immediately after the Preakness disparaging both the field, saying "there weren't any good horses," as well as a future rival. Of Casino Drive, the Japanese-owned colt who won the Peter Pan Stakes last weekend and looks like a serious threat to spoil Brownie's crown, Dutrow offered this analysis: "I don't think he can beat our horse. All the Japanese people who are coming here think Godzilla's dead. Well, they're going to find out he's not dead."
But in the giddiness of the victory, there were reminders of issues that are not going away any time soon. Hours before the race, IEAH Stables, the outfit that owns Big Brown, sold his syndication rights to Three Chimneys Farm. Robert Clay, who runs the Lexington, Ky., breeding operation wouldn't divulge the terms of the deal, but speculation at the track was that it was for around $50 million. With all that money on the line, it is highly unlikely that Big Brown will race again after the Belmont. Neither the owners nor the farm can risk losing that kind of money because of injury.
And so racing will probably only have three more weeks to admire its newest superstar. And after he is gone, the game will still have to deal with the problems that the death of Eight Belles put squarely in the spotlight: the weakening of the thoroughbred breed through inbreeding, the use of performance enhancing substances and the dilemma presented by the presence of synthetic racing surfaces. Outcry or no, these problems will not go away in a month or a year or five years.
Still, it was nice to focus on racing for a moment. And this was racing at its highest level. Big Brown left no doubt about that. Another Triple Crown may finally be at hand.