Pimlico abuzz over `Brown'

Top pick for Preakness regarded as total package

133rd Preakness

May 17, 2008|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

Like any good prom king, he arrived fashionably late and seemed completely comfortable when every eye turned his way.

His coat was shiny, his physique buff. Dozens wanted nothing more than to snap his picture and be in his presence.

That is what it's like to arrive at Pimlico Race Course as the reigning Kentucky Derby champion and the only horse this year with a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years. Big Brown, one of the strongest favorites in Preakness history, seemed to love it.

"Everybody was just waiting on Big Brown," said the horse's trainer, Rick Dutrow, making his return to the state where he learned racing from his dad.

"It was cool. ... I believe he enjoys the attention. He enjoys meeting new people."

After stepping off his trailer shortly after 8 p.m. Wednesday, Big Brown walked calmly to his end stall at the track's stakes barn.

From that moment until the eve of today's race, his name seemed to be on the lips of every person passing through Pimlico. Where's Big Brown? When is Big Brown going to gallop? Do you think anyone can beat Big Brown?

"There's a lot of things that are scary about Big Brown," said Eddie Plesia, who will saddle Hey Byrn against him.

"This is Big Brown's party," said Patrick Gallagher, trainer of Yankee Bravo.

Every time the horse moved, heads turned and cameras fired. One reporter said it was like covering Tiger Woods.

Big Brown was an undefeated favorite but not a superstar entering the Derby two weeks ago. He changed that by roaring from the outside and leaving his competitors well behind with a late kick. The commanding victory did not seem to surprise Dutrow, who had all but guaranteed it before the race.

But he sounded a little less certain the next day, when asked about the Preakness. Dutrow talked about the quick turnaround, the change in track surfaces, the fresh field his horse would be facing.

At the same time, he privately encountered a new confidence in Big Brown. "He wanted to bite and play around a little bit," he recalled.

The horse, now a "man" in Dutrow's eyes, practically snatched the peppermint treats from his trainer's hand.

Because of inclement weather, Big Brown galloped only a few times in Louisville in the 10 days after the Derby.

But everything Dutrow saw rebuilt his belief. His relatively untested horse seemed fresh, never failed to gulp down his meals of oats, and ran aggressively whenever he took the track.

"There's no way anyone can tell how a horse will run after only two weeks," he said after arriving in Baltimore. "But he's just done everything you could want a horse to do coming out of a race like that."

When it was time to travel, Big Brown was ushered onto a special equine plane, complete with stalls and hay. The charter flight left more than an hour late from Louisville, but when the horse arrived at Pimlico - escorted by police and two trucks from his namesake and corporate sponsor UPS - his trainer said Big Brown had been "cool" with the trip.

He was up past his bedtime, sure, but by 6 a.m. Thursday, he seemed fully alert, poking his head out of stall 34 to investigate the photographers and sniff the tail of a passing horse. He didn't make much noise or thrash about, unlike the hundreds of fans and reporters who were there to see him.

At about 8:30, his exercise rider, Michelle Nevin, steered the strapping bay colt out of the stakes barn toward his first exposure to Pimlico's track.

Dutrow, dressed in jeans and an untucked yellow shirt, followed closely. Unlike his horse, the Hagerstown native has had plenty of Pimlico exposure. His father, Dickie, was a trainer there, and he grew up running around a barn near the one that housed Big Brown.

"I'm used to being in the infield," he joked as he sidled up to the track to watch his horse gallop. "I'm used to being just outside the gate."

Big Brown moved by easily and powerfully. Click, click, click went the cameras as he whizzed past the grandstand.

"He looks good, huh, Jerry?" Dutrow said in the direction of ESPN analyst and former jockey Jerry Bailey.

"He looks great," Bailey said.

He then asked Dutrow about his unusual plan to "blow out" his horse, or give him a fast workout, on the morning of the race.

"I just want to sharpen him up a little," Dutrow said, recalling a horse at Aqueduct that won by 15 lengths after "breezing" three-eighths of a mile in the morning. He has never tried the tactic with Big Brown but said he believes it will suit the makeup of the horse.

"How'd he go, babe?" the trainer asked as Nevin eased Big Brown off the track.

"Good," she replied.

"That's all we need," Dutrow said.

He was bursting with confidence again as he held court with reporters after the gallop. He reminisced about how Big Brown "took [my] breath away" the first time he thundered past the quarter-pole in a real race.

"I never imagined he could run like that," he said. "He just has some gears he can turn on when he wants."

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