Big Brown - Likely Kentucky Derby Favorite
by Trevor Whenham - 04/25/2008
This year's Kentucky Derby presents a favorite who could be truly special, but who is very difficult to understand. His name is Big Brown. If you haven't heard of him yet then you will soon, and you could hear about him a lot. His name isn't the most romantic, but it comes from where you might guess - the owner who named him owned a trucking company that worked with UPS. We'll get into why he's so hard to figure out, but he has a heck of a story, so let's take a look at it.
He was bought in April of last year for $190,000. Many two year olds hit the track in the spring, but he was held back until early September. His debut was on the turf in Saratoga and it was spectacular. He won by 11 3/4 lengths, and it was clear that he was the real deal. That performance set off a bidding frenzy, and the owner, Paul Pompa Jr., cashed in big. He sold 75 percent of the horse for $3 million. Soon after the new owners, I.E.A.H. Stables, spent the money they probably wished that they hadn't. First, Bog Brown got an abscess in his left front hoof. That kept him out of training for nearly two months. Just as he was getting ready to go again another abscess attacked his right foot. Those injuries kept him out of training until February, and when he returned he had to use special glue-on plastic shoes that reduced the impact of the track on his feet.
Those injuries were obviously a setback, but it didn't seem to bother Big Brown at all. He returned on March 5 on the dirt at Gulfstream and looked even better than before the setbacks. He settled off the pace and then just exploded on the last turn and rolled to a win by almost 13 lengths. Needless to say, people started paying attention to him again. His next race was his stakes debut, and that took place in the Florida Derby, the same race that Barbaro won en route to the Kentucky Derby. It was a major step up in class, but the horse didn't notice. He got stuck in the outside post position in the 12 horse field, but he moved up nicely, had the lead at the first call, and pulled away at the end to win by five. A legend was born.
That's the impressive part. Now the problems. That Florida Derby was his last race. Before Barbaro did the Florida-Kentucky double it was thought that the layoff from the end of March to the beginning of May was too long for a horse to be at his best. Barbaro proved that it's possible, but that doesn't mean that it's all of a sudden a good idea. That's a hurdle he has to overcome.
The next problem is that he has only run three times in his career. No horse has won with that little experience since Regret in 1915. In case you don't have a calendar nearby, that was a long time ago. Curlin tried to pull it off last year - he had also only run three times, and had also never lost - but he didn't quite have enough in the tank and ended up third. He went on to win the Preakness and the Breeders' Cup Classic en route to being Horse of the Year so it all turned out alright, but you could argue that the Derby was another needed prep race on the way to later success. Big Brown would have to be further ahead in his development than Curlin was to win in Kentucky.
The next problem is that he has only run twice as a three year old. All of Curlin's races had been when he was three. Only two horses have ever won the Derby off of just two three year old races. One was Sunny's Halo in 1983, and the other was Street Sense last year. Fans of this horse will say that last year's race proves that things have changed and horses can be prepared without needing as many races. That seems to be a commonly held belief - there will be at least seven horses in the race this year with just two preps, including the winners of most of the major preps - the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial, and the Florida, Illinois, and Santa Anita Derbies. Most of those horses, and Street Sense, had more than one stakes race under their belt, and had run more than once as a two year old.
As you can see, logic alone makes it hard to like this horse. If you have seen him race, though, you see just how impressive he is. It comes down to this, then - is this horse a freak? Lot's of horse people think so, and there is a belief that he has a heart that is larger than normal and therefore has more capacity. His breeding is very sound (though he has more sprinting tendencies than some would like), and he has shown incredible maturity for a horse that is so raw. Really, this horse is just like so many things in the Derby - you can't really figure it out for sure, so you just have to decide whether you want to believe or not and bet accordingly. I still haven't decided if I will be with him or against him on the first Saturday in May.