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Big Is Better

May 12, 2008
May 12, 2008

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May 12, 2008

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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

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

This is an article from the May 12, 2008 issue

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

The death ofEight Belles cast a pall over the day, leaving the second-largest Derby crowdin history (157,770) in a confused murmur. Jones, a respected horseman who grewup barrel racing in western Kentucky, had won the Kentucky Oaks (for 3-year-oldfillies) the day before the Derby with Proud Spell and was chasing anunprecedented double. "She acts like she wants to roughneck itsometimes," Jones said of Eight Belles three days before the Derby. "Sowe're going to let her try it with the boys."

Bettors droppedEight Belles from her morning-line odds of 20--1 to 13--1 at post time, fourthchoice in the field of 20. It was action that seemed born of affection ratherthan handicapping acumen, as only three fillies had won the Derby and none in20 years. Now, two years after Barbaro, racing once again straddled the gulfthat divides celebration and sadness.

That much of thepostrace attention focused on the tragedy is unfair to Big Brown, whose victorywas 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 passedsince the last Triple Crown winner (Affirmed in 1978), and while racing fanshave been burned by near misses in the Belmont (six in the last 11 years), theease of Big Brown's victory almost demands that the sport dream of what mightlie ahead.

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

Big Brown's winwas the culmination of an uncertain eight months. Purchased for $190,000 at ayearling sale in Kentucky by trucking company owner Paul Pompa (who hadpreviously owned Big Brown's half brother, Snake River Canyon), Big Brown madehis debut last Sept. 3, in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race on grass at Saratoga. Hewon by 11 1/4 lengths, the type of performance that attracts buyers with theireyes on the Derby and the breeding shed. "I got two calls on the ride backhome to New Jersey that night," says Pompa, 49, who gave the colt UPS'snickname because his company has long been a UPS subcontractor. "And theday after that I got some more calls."

Dubai SheikhMohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum's free-spending Darley Stud was one of thecallers. Another was Michael Iavarone, who with Richard Schiavo heads thefive-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 andletting him keep a 25% interest in the horse. Pompa says Darley offered himbreeding shares but would not allow him to retain any ownership. "How sickwould I be watching the Derby if I did that?" Pompa said before therace.

IEAH transferredBig 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 bedead or in jail. But here I am. Lucky—with my horses and a lot of otherthings."

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

In October 1994 adaughter, Catherine, was born to Dutrow and his girlfriend, Denise Toyloy. InMarch '97, after her relationship with the trainer had ended, Toyloy wasmurdered in a drug-related break-in at a house in Schenectady, N.Y., while 21/2-year-old Catherine (Dutrow's family calls her Molly) was in an adjacentroom. Three men were convicted in Toyloy's death. Molly lived for 10 years inMaryland with her paternal grandmother, Vicki, but now lives in East Norwich,N.Y., with her father. Molly, 13, and Vicki sat with Dutrow in his box duringthe Derby. "Oh ... my ... God.... We were all freaking out," said Mollyafterward, with the inflection of a duly thrilled eighth-grader.

Dick Dutrow diedof cancer in 1999 while Rick was still trying to beat back his demons andrestart his training career. He was living in a tack room at AqueductRacetrack, largely estranged from his father, who had long been frustrated withRick's lack of discipline and direction. "I wish it had ended better withme and Dad," says Dutrow. "But I still think we were O.K. He's why I'mhere. He knew I could do this."

IN 1999 Dutrowwas introduced to Wall Street trader Sandy Goldfarb, who became the first ownerwith significant financial resources to send horses to Dutrow's barn. "Thefirst guy who believed in me," says the trainer. By 2005 Dutrow had morethan 100 horses, and he won two Breeders' Cup races that fall. His work is notwithout blemish; he served a 60-day suspension in '05 when two of his horsestested positive for banned substances and was assessed an additional 14-daysuspension and a $25,000 fine in '07 for attempting to train horses while onsuspension. He has also been hit with numerous minor sanctions.

Because he is oneof several big-name trainers to have served a suspension after horses testedpositive for banned drugs (Asmussen and Todd Pletcher are among the others), heis often asked if his operation is clean. "People look at me like thatsometimes," Dutrow said before the Derby. "I don't care. I know what wedo. People who want to cheat to win a race—that's not us."

After the win atSaratoga, Big Brown alternately charmed and frustrated Dutrow through thewinter. He was twice on the shelf for 45 days with cracks in his front hooves,and Dutrow scarcely had time to ready his horse for the Derby. Finally healthy,Big Brown on March 5 crushed the field in a mile allowance race at Gulfstream,where bad weather had forced a switch from the turf to the dirt—a change thathelped ready him for Kentucky. Twenty-four days later he won the Florida Derbyfrom the highly disadvantageous post position 12, another harbinger of hisDerby win.

"In theFlorida Derby, I asked him to run hard to get the lead, and then I pulled onthe reins with my full body weight to bring him back to me," saysDesormeaux. "Sometimes that will finish a horse. But he relaxed right backfor me. Unbelievable."

Desormeaux hadpreviously won the Kentucky Derby on Real Quiet (1998) and Fusaichi Pegasus(2000). "I remember the first time I sat on Pegasus," says the38-year-old jockey. "He took about three steps, and I was like, Oh, my God.Then this guy—I sat on him, and my mind flashed right back. Oh, my God, here wego again. Only he's even better."

With thatdescription, and with the fresh memory of a dominant win on hallowed ground, afamiliar chase begins. Racing is endlessly in search of transcendent greatness,for the next Citation, the next Secretariat, the next Affirmed. The chaseroutinely ends in disappointment. Now it is Big Brown's turn to try to makehistory. To erase the memory of a fallen filly. To elevate the sport.

"She ran the RACE OF HER LIFE," Jones said,squeezing out tears. "Losing animals like this isn't fun. It's not supposedto happen."

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DOWN THE STRETCH

Follow Big Brown's quest to win the Preakness, thesecond leg of the Triple Crown, with reports from Tim Layden.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Heinz KluetmeierTHE OUTSIDER Desormeaux maneuvered Big Brown to victory from the unfavorable 20th post, then celebrated with Dutrow.PHOTOBILL FRAKES[See caption above]PHOTOSIMON BRUTYFALLEN FILLY After running an impressive second, Eight Belles broke both front legs galloping out and was quickly euthanized.