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."
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
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."
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
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
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."