Brown chases elusive crown

Win at Belmont today could offer hope for troubled horse racing industry

June 07, 2008|By Childs Walker and Sandra McKee | Childs Walker and Sandra McKee,Sun reporters

No mere horse has been able to challenge Big Brown's speed, but today at Belmont Park, the handsome, personable colt will attempt to outrun something bigger - history.

If he succeeds, he'll become the 12th thoroughbred since 1919, and the first since Affirmed in 1978, to win the Triple Crown.

The 30-year drought is the longest ever in the series. Many observers think Big Brown is the horse to overcome the turns of fate and the grueling 1 1/2-mile course that have stymied previous contenders. The winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness remains an overwhelming favorite despite a crack in his left front hoof and the arrival of a fresh challenger from Japan in Casino Drive (suffering his own hoof trouble in the form of a bruise).

"I think he's incredibly talented," said ESPN analyst Jeannine Edwards, who lives in Cecil County. "He has brilliant speed, and he's proven that he can carry it over ground."

For a further sense of the confidence in his talent, simply listen to Big Brown's closest associates.

Jockey Kent Desormeaux, who made his name in Maryland and nearly won the 1998 Triple Crown on Real Quiet, calls the horse the best he has ridden.

Trainer Rick Dutrow, who learned the sport at his father's knee at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, has issued increasingly bold predictions about his horse's chances. "I expect him to win this race," he said of the Belmont. "It's a foregone conclusion to me."

Ten years ago, Dutrow was sleeping in a barn at New York's Aqueduct track. His girlfriend had recently been murdered, and he was battling addictions that had left him estranged from his father, the late Maryland trainer Dickie Dutrow.

The Triple Crown would help complete his tale of redemption.

Horsemen also hope a Big Brown victory will offer redemption for an industry troubled by declines in track attendance and betting, and by questions about the death of Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby. More than 128,000 have bought tickets to Belmont, passing the 2004 record of 120,139 and indicating the allure of a Triple Crown win.

"It's been a tough year economically and a tough year in terms of some of the things that generate negative press attention," said Dan Rosenberg, a longtime Kentucky farm executive and breeding expert. "But a Triple Crown winner has always been a shot in the arm. A great horse, a hero, can make up for a lot."

Big Brown looks the part, with a shiny bay coat stretched over rippling muscles and a distinctive white birthmark above his left front leg.

He was the betting favorite entering the Kentucky Derby but was considered far from a sure thing because he had raced just three times. He destroyed most doubts when he took off from the far outside to beat a field of 19.

New questions arose when he reached Baltimore three days before the Preakness. Would all the attention make him nervous? Could such a lightly raced horse handle a two-week turnaround?

Again, he answered brilliantly. Desormeaux actually throttled him back at the end, knowing he didn't need Big Brown's best to win easily.

Observers were quick to anoint a new superhorse, even if some questioned the strength of his opposition.

Six days after his Preakness triumph, however, news of the quarter crack in Big Brown's hoof introduced new uncertainty. Dutrow said his horse seemed frisky and unaware of the problem. Hoof specialist Ian McKinlay played it down, saying he had dealt with much worse in preparing horses for Triple Crown races.

In the wake of Barbaro's fatal injury at the 2006 Preakness and Eight Belles' grisly collapse at the Derby, health questions are not easily dismissed. Big Brown's hoof trouble echoed the experience of another overwhelming favorite, Spectacular Bid, who stepped on a safety pin the morning of the 1979 Belmont and finished third.

But McKinlay said yesterday, "As far as everything I see, it couldn't be better."

Big Brown shined Tuesday in a hard workout on the repaired hoof. Yesterday afternoon, McKinlay removed the original sutures, cleaned the area, restitched it and then applied a fiberglass patch that he termed stronger than the hoof itself.

Hoof injury aside, Big Brown's Triple Crown run has raised questions about the medical handling of horses. Dutrow has been fined or suspended each of the past eight years for offenses related to doping and has acknowledged using the anabolic steroid Winstrol on Big Brown (the drug is allowed in most states).

Such concerns will be secondary this afternoon when Big Brown breaks from the No. 1 post at Belmont in search of history. He'll face a field full of long shots and horses he has already defeated. Only Casino Drive, a horse bred and trained for success at the Belmont's longer distance, is considered much of a threat. And he's dealing with a bruised hoof.

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