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Big Is Better
May 12, 2008
In a Kentucky Derby that ended tragically for the one entry to make a run at him, lightly raced favorite Big Brown was way more horse than the weak field could handle
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May 12, 2008

Big Is Better

In a Kentucky Derby that ended tragically for the one entry to make a run at him, lightly raced favorite Big Brown was way more horse than the weak field could handle

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HERE WAS a patch of racetrack earth where destinies collided last Saturday in the late-afternoon sunshine. Thoroughbred trainer Rick Dutrow ran awkwardly through sandy soil near the Churchill Downs finish line en route to an infield winner's circle celebration for Big Brown, the brilliant 3-year-old colt that Dutrow saddled for an epic victory in the 134th Kentucky Derby. Walter Blum, one of Dutrow's exercise riders and a longtime friend, threw an arm across Dutrow's meaty shoulders and yelled in his left ear, "You did it, man! You won the Kentucky Derby! The horse is a freak! He's a freak!" Dutrow met Blum's eyes and cackled wildly, a man locked in the sweetest of dreams.

Not 10 paces away, Larry Jones emerged from the paddock tunnel with fellow trainer Steve Asmussen, who put his arm over Jones's shoulder and congratulated him for sending the filly Eight Belles to a second-place finish. Jones smiled a toothy grin because he did not yet know what many at the track and millions watching on NBC already did. Eight Belles lay in the dirt a quarter mile past the finish line with two broken front legs. She was euthanized just minutes after her finest moment. "We were ecstatic; she ran the race of her life," Jones would say later, squeezing out tears. "Losing animals like this isn't fun. It's not supposed to happen."

The death of Eight Belles cast a pall over the day, leaving the second-largest Derby crowd in history (157,770) in a confused murmur. Jones, a respected horseman who grew up barrel racing in western Kentucky, had won the Kentucky Oaks (for 3-year-old fillies) the day before the Derby with Proud Spell and was chasing an unprecedented double. "She acts like she wants to roughneck it sometimes," Jones said of Eight Belles three days before the Derby. "So we're going to let her try it with the boys."

Bettors dropped Eight Belles from her morning-line odds of 20--1 to 13--1 at post time, fourth choice in the field of 20. It was action that seemed born of affection rather than handicapping acumen, as only three fillies had won the Derby and none in 20 years. Now, two years after Barbaro, racing once again straddled the gulf that divides celebration and sadness.

That much of the postrace attention focused on the tragedy is unfair to Big Brown, whose victory was historic—it had been 93 years since a horse with so little experience (three races) had won the Derby—and seductive. Twenty-nine years have passed since the last Triple Crown winner (Affirmed in 1978), and while racing fans have been burned by near misses in the Belmont (six in the last 11 years), the ease of Big Brown's victory almost demands that the sport dream of what might lie ahead.

Running from the number 20 post position, from which no horse had won the Derby since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929, Big Brown went four wide in fourth place around the first turn under jockey Kent Desormeaux. Six furlongs into the race Big Brown made a quick move from sixth place to third, and at the head of the stretch he shot away from the field as if it were a herd of cattle. The final margin over Eight Belles was 4 3/4 lengths; it was another 3 1/2 back to Denis of Cork.

Big Brown's win was the culmination of an uncertain eight months. Purchased for $190,000 at a yearling sale in Kentucky by trucking company owner Paul Pompa (who had previously owned Big Brown's half brother, Snake River Canyon), Big Brown made his debut last Sept. 3, in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race on grass at Saratoga. He won by 11 1/4 lengths, the type of performance that attracts buyers with their eyes on the Derby and the breeding shed. "I got two calls on the ride back home to New Jersey that night," says Pompa, 49, who gave the colt UPS's nickname because his company has long been a UPS subcontractor. "And the day after that I got some more calls."

Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum's free-spending Darley Stud was one of the callers. Another was Michael Iavarone, who with Richard Schiavo heads the five-year-old IEAH Stable. "Right away I thought Kentucky Derby," recalls Iavarone. "But nobody outbids Darley if they want a horse." IEAH ultimately got Big Brown by paying Pompa approximately $2.5 million and letting him keep a 25% interest in the horse. Pompa says Darley offered him breeding shares but would not allow him to retain any ownership. "How sick would I be watching the Derby if I did that?" Pompa said before the race.

IEAH transferred Big Brown from original trainer Patrick Reynolds to the New York--based Dutrow, who has suffered deeply by his own hand while becoming a successful trainer. "I've done horrible things," says Dutrow. "I should probably be dead or in jail. But here I am. Lucky—with my horses and a lot of other things."

Dutrow, 48, is the middle son of Dick Dutrow, who was a dominant trainer on the Maryland circuit and led the nation with 352 wins in 1975 but never won a Triple Crown race. Rick dropped out of high school at age 16 and went to work for his father, and his drug use gradually dragged him deep into trouble. In 1988 Dutrow's license was suspended indefinitely by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board after he tested positive for marijuana. The suspension lasted nearly seven years. "I'm always better around the barn than away from the barn," says Dutrow. "I did drugs and drove. I drove one night on quaaludes. I could have killed myself or somebody else many times."

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