Unanswered questions abound after Big Brown's big loss
One of the most tumultuous and controversial Triple Crown seasons in history is finished. Many questions remain about the five weeks just finished and about the years ahead for horse racing. Some of the questions, and some possible answers:
How did Big Brown lose the Belmont?
To the most controversial point, I think it's unlikely that Big Brown lost because he didn't get his monthly steroid injection on May 15. The value of steroids as a pure performance-enhancer in thoroughbreds is unknown. Common sense says they have to help, but veterinarians and trainers do not agree on how much.
For the sake of argument, let's assume that Big Brown's steroid regimen from September through April was a major factor in making him the monster horse he was in the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness. So he goes off the juice after his April injection and this turns him into a plodding mule, swallowed by the entire Belmont Stakes field before they've run a full mile? I don't buy it. Big Brown's regression in the Belmont was too severe to blame on missing one, low-dosage steroid injection. Maybe he was getting more than that. But based on what we know, it doesn't explain the Belmont.
Then what? Trainers all over the Belmont backstretch openly suggested during Belmont week that Big Brown was undertrained while his handlers allowed a hoof crack to heal. In most cases, the words were not expressed as skepticism, but as the desperate case-making of opponents with little chance. "We're all just looking for some hope, because he's a very talented racehorse,'' said David Carroll, who trains second-place finisher Denis of Cork, in the week before the race.
Big Brown had one serious work between the Derby and Belmont, a five-furlong breeze on June 3. One work. That's it. After the Belmont, I asked Rick Dutrow, Big Brown's trainer, if he had been caught short by a training schedule forced on him by the injury. "That didn't happen, babe,'' said Dutrow, invoking his favorite noun as a rebuke.
Whatever you think of Dutrow, he's a good horseman. But a lot of people think he did get caught short in this race. The Triple Crown is tough on horses that run all three races (Big Brown was the only one who did), and to do it while nursing an injury that limits training is a tall order. We in the media believed Dutrow's assurances that the horse was healthy and fresh because of his easy run in the Preakness. We believed the quarter crack was no real issue because he said so and his hoof specialist, Ian McKinlay, said so. Shame on us. Big Brown was undertrained when the gate opened on Saturday, and there's not a whole lot Dutrow could have done about it.
Two days before the Belmont I asked Dutrow alone how he would have trained a healthy horse for the Belmont. He paused. "I haven't even thought about that, babe,'' he said. But I'll bet he had thought about it and he would have trained him differently. More strong gallops. Maybe another breeze.
Then there is the race itself. Kent Desormeaux told SI.com's Dan Patrick on Monday that he lost the race in the first turn. I agree. I don't agree with much else Desormeaux said.
He told Patrick, "If he would have broke smart, my intent was to just wire the field.'' Big Brown is a fast horse, but early in the week trainer Nick Zito said of eventual winner Da' Tara, "He'll be in front. There's no way any horse is getting in front of him.'' OK, let's assume that Big Brown is fast enough to get in front of Da' Tara; would it have been wise to race Da' Tara for the lead in a 12-furlong race? I think Desormeaux's plan was flawed. The Belmont is almost never won wire-to-wire; the last horse to do it was Swale in 1984.
Big Brown broke all right. Not great, but all right. But once Desormeaux got him running, the jockey made two abrupt, panicky moves in the first quarter-mile. First he tried to split Da' Tara and Tale of Ekati and was cut off, forcing him to check hard on Big Brown. Then he darted outside, bouncing off Anak Nakal, in the first turn, in a rushed attempt to get outside. (One of Dutrow's cronies said to me after the race, "What the hell was Kent doing out there?'')
Big Brown is a smart, talented horse, but Desormeaux put him through a lot of action in the first 30 seconds of a very long race when he might have done much better just letting him sit inside for six furlongs and allowing the race to develop in front of him. It's entirely possible that all of Desormeaux's moves early in the race killed Big Brown's interest in running and, in combination with his light conditioning, torpedoed any chance of winning.
Will Big Brown run again?
Michael Iavarone, the co-president of IEAH Stables, which owns Big Brown, says he will be pointed toward the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga in August, and then the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita in late October. Iavarone has been consistent for the last three weeks in saying that Big Brown would not be retired after the Belmont, although most of those questions were rendered on the assumption that he would win the Belmont.
IEAH has entered into a deal worth at least $60 million with Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky to stand Big Brown as a stallion. For Three Chimneys -- and any other investors, including IEAH, in the deal -- to make money, Big Brown will have to stand for a high stud fee, probably more than $150,000 a year. Big Brown's pedigree is not sterling, but if he was a Triple Crown winner, Three Chimneys could demand a big number. Now he is not a Triple Crown winner.
At this point, IEAH is in a very high-stakes poker game. The Belmont loss was very damaging to Big Brown's potential future stud fee, but victories in the Travers and Breeders' Cup would nearly erase that loss. However, another loss would be crippling. And of course, there is always the possibility of injury.
On another level, many great 3-year-old Triple Crown horses of recent vintage did not run after the Belmont Stakes. Empire Maker (winner of the 2003 Belmont) never ran again. Smarty Jones (2004 Derby and Preakness) never ran again. Afleet Alex (2005 Preakness and Belmont, maybe the best of the recent near-misses) never ran again. Funny Cide (2002 Derby and Preakness) was a gelding with no stud value and he ran four more years. Curlin, last year's Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old, is still running.
IEAH has a very tough decision. I would love to see Big Brown run two or three more times. If I were betting, I would say he will not run again. He has had physical issues and, after his Belmont performance, he might never be the same horse again.