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Mark of a Champ

May 26, 2008
May 26, 2008

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May 26, 2008

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Mark of a Champ

Believers say the mysterious white spot on Big Brown signifies a horse of destiny—how else to explain his rise from humble origins to odds-on favorite to win the Triple Crown?

THERE WAS something very different about this colt. He was pulled from his mother's womb in the broodmare barn at Monticule Farm in central Kentucky on the afternoon of April 10, 2005, deep bay in color but with a strange white dot at the top of his left front leg, near his rib cage. It was perhaps the size of a quarter, and none of the three people in the stall at the time of his birth had ever seen such a marking on a horse of his coloring. "What the devil is that?" said Monticule owner Gary Knapp. The horse's handlers, many of whom were Mexican, nicknamed him Punto Blanco, Spanish for "white dot." ¶ He was purchased for $60,000 at a yearling sale in the fall of 2006 by Eddie Woods, then 48, an Irishman with a sprawling Florida farm who had been a jockey in his youth and now operates as a pinhooker, buying yearlings for the purpose of teaching them to run and reselling them for a profit. Woods saw the white dot, grown to the size of a golf ball on his unnamed baby. "Some good horses have something about them that's totally different from other horses," says Woods. "It's their x factor. That's his thing: a brilliant white spot in a very obscure place."

This is an article from the May 26, 2008 issue

In April 2007 Brooklyn trucking company owner Paul Pompa bought the horse from Woods for $190,000, named him Big Brown (to honor his company's relationship with UPS) and sent him to race for trainer Patrick Reynolds at New York's Belmont Park. When Big Brown walked down the ramp from a long trailer to his new home, Reynolds was struck by the white spot, now the size of a silver dollar. "The first thing I thought of was [Federico] Tesio," says Reynolds, referring to the renowned European breeder who died in 1954. "He said the truly great horses have some freakish characteristic, and here was this marking. I'm thinking, Wouldn't it be something if that proved true?"

The racetrack is a place where hard men will sometimes give themselves over to romance and superstition, and where the pain of long days and too many defeats is salved by the depthless hope that the next horse will be the right horse. It is a place where otherwise pragmatic people will look at a white spot and see greatness explained.

"You believe," says Woods, "that the spot was placed there by the hand of God."

BIG BROWN has arrived at a point where that backstretch faith intersects with proven dominance. He has moved to the cusp of history. On May 3 in Louisville he won the Kentucky Derby with a precocious run that was largely overshadowed by Eight Belles's breakdown and the ensuing (and ongoing) debate over thoroughbred racing safety. Last Saturday, at creaking old Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Big Brown won the Preakness by 5 1/4 lengths, a performance that was stunning in its ease.

Jockey Kent Desormeaux asked Big Brown for his best run with only a quarter mile to race—"I kissed at him, like when you call your pet," Desormeaux said afterward—and then only for long enough to gap an overmatched field of 11 others before letting up with more than a 16th of a mile to go. "After today," said Jeremy Rose, the rider on third-place finisher Icabad Crane, "what hope can we find?"

On June 7 in New York, Big Brown, unbeaten in five starts, will attempt to become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978, and the 12th in history, to win racing's Triple Crown. He is the seventh in 12 years to win the Derby and Preakness, yet none of those horses reached the Belmont Stakes with more Triple Crown potential, or with broader implications attached to his performance—helping to heal a sport wounded by sadness and controversy.

This status would have seemed unfathomable when Punto Blanco was gamboling around Knapp's 630-acre farm in Lexington. The jewels of Knapp's 2005 breeding class were two colts from the last crop of glamorous sire Danzig. Big Brown was the product of a hopeful mating between Boundary, a sire who had produced no great runners, and Monticule broodmare Mien (by Nueyev, a standout racer in Europe). "He did not get superstar attention," says Monticule farm manager Dominique Tijou.

Likewise Big Brown did not overwhelm Woods with his athletic ability when he broke the horse on his farm in Florida. "He showed himself to be a nice horse," says Woods, "but you ask me if I thought he would be what he is today, I'll tell you I don't have that kind of imagination."

Only when Pompa gave the horse to Reynolds, his regular New York--based trainer, did Big Brown flash excellence. One morning in August 2007, on the turf course of a training track at Saratoga, he ran a half-mile in a shockingly fast 44 4/5 seconds. On Sept. 3, with planned jockey Edgar Prado hurt, Reynolds put Rose on Big Brown for his debut race, which he won, explosively, by 11 1/4 lengths. "I was glad Jeremy Rose was on him," says Reynolds, "because I remember how athletic Jeremy was in the [2005] Preakness when Afleet Alex almost went down. Big Brown almost ran out from under him."

Rose jumped off Big Brown that day and told Reynolds, "Anytime, anywhere, I'll ride this horse again."

Soon Pompa had arranged to sell a 75% share in Big Brown to IEAH Stables for approximately $2.5 million. But first IEAH co-founder Michael Iavarone wanted to watch the horse train. Reynolds worked him five furlongs around cones on Belmont's turf course. The time, 58 seconds flat, was so fast that Reynolds accidentally reset his stopwatch, thinking it must have malfunctioned. Christophe Clement, a French trainer who works the New York circuit, descended from a clockers' stand and announced in his regal accent, "Gentlemen, your watches are not broken. The horse, he worked that fast."

A DEAL WAS struck. Reynolds was replaced by IEAH's regular trainer, Rick Dutrow, with Reynolds receiving 10% of IEAH's purchase price as compensation. Dutrow wanted Prado, his first-call rider, on Big Brown, but Iavarone gave the mount to Desormeaux after the jockey rode IEAH filly Sharp Susan to several victories. Dutrow was angry at first. Desormeaux, who had come to New York in 2006 seeking a fresh start after his career hit a wall in California, was thrilled. "In California trainers were walking away from me when I came to their barns in the morning," says Desormeaux. "Oh no, here comes Desormeaux."

No other jockey has been closer to the Triple Crown without winning it. Desormeaux took the first two legs aboard Real Quiet in 1998 but was beaten by a nose in the Belmont by Victory Gallop. "When Kent is on, nobody's better," says trainer Bob Baffert, who saddled Real Quiet. "For a while I thought he wasn't the old Kent. But right now, he's on."

With all the parts in place Big Brown overcame two 45-day stretches out of action with hoof cracks and won an allowance, then the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby, the last by 4 3/4 lengths. As he had in Kentucky, Dutrow talked big in Maryland, where he learned the game from his father, Dick. After dinner at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Baltimore on Friday, he got a ride home from New Yorkers Chris Fierro and Chip Acierno, two of his clients from the late 1990s, when Dutrow was fighting substance abuse and trying to get a start in the game. "He was in a zone, all business," Acierno says of their conversation on Friday night. "But he told us, 'If things go right, we got it, babe.'"

Dutrow had purposely not trained Big Brown hard in the fortnight after the Derby, but he blew him out over a very short distance on the morning of the Preakness, an old-school training tactic designed to sharpen the horse for competition. In a nod to his family's Maryland roots, Dutrow let his trainer-brother Chip walk Big Brown from the barn to the track. The horse was saddled on the Pimlico infield in the slanting sunlight of the late day and walked in patient circles for 20 minutes awaiting the post parade. Said Dutrow later, "He was so calm I thought he was going to fall asleep."

An hour before the Preakness, IEAH had announced an agreement to stand Big Brown as a stallion at Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky, a deal that industry sources said could be worth more than $50 million. Racing decisions will be made by IEAH, which will also retain part ownership of Big Brown at stud. It is unlikely he will run after the Belmont, an unfortunate reality in a sport driven by breeding.

In the race there were issues to overcome. Big Brown's back feet slipped out from under him as he broke from the gate. He moved inside to fourth place, and Desormeaux angled him wide on the backstretch, where he was challenged, bumped and forced to check by Riley Tucker, who would ultimately finish last. But Desormeaux easily rallied Big Brown to the lead, several times looking under his arm to assess the race. From a seat in an NBC production trailer, Eight Belles's trainer, Larry Jones, watched and awaited the inevitable. "I could see how much horse Kent had," said Jones. "I was thinking, Boy, when he cuts this sucker loose, he's going to roll."

Big Brown darted to a wide lead as soon as Desormeaux asked. Outside the 1/16-mile pole the jockey wrapped his reins, saving horse for the Belmont. In 2004 Stewart Elliott had urged Smarty Jones to win by 11 1/2 lengths; a year earlier Jose Santos whipped Funny Cide repeatedly with a widening lead that ended up 9 3/4 lengths. Dutrow remembered. "Funny Cide was up by six coming for home, and Jose went to work on the horse," said Dutrow as he walked back to his barn after the Preakness. "How does that help him win the Belmont? Now, we're sitting in a good place. I've got horse left for the Belmont."

Around the old track, praise was heaped on Big Brown. "I always say you can't anoint anybody [until they actually win the Triple Crown]," said trainer Nick Zito. "But today he got a tremendous vote from me."

RECENT HISTORY leaves racing fans justifiably wary. Never has the sport gone so long—30 years—without a Triple Crown winner, and never has a period been more clogged with Belmont near misses than the six in eight years from 1997 through 2004. Now a gifted opponent awaits in New York, Japanese-bred Casino Drive, who has raced just twice in his life but is bred to run the 1 1/2-mile Belmont distance and won the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont on May 10. He will be a worthy foil, rich with story lines.

Yet the seduction of Big Brown is bigger than any challenge he might face. In Baltimore he took a sport that had been confused by death and demanded that it embrace his performance. "How easy is this for me?" said Dutrow in the early evening twilight outside Pimlico. "Every race, he's amazed everybody with what he's done. Crazy, crazy, crazy horse."

Big Brown has arrived at the point where backstretch faith intersects with PROVEN DOMINANCE. "After today," said Rose, who rode the third-place horse, "what hope can we find?"

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PHOTOPhotograph by Bill FrakesALL ALONE Desormeaux saw no threats on the Preakness homestretch and eased up to save Big Brown for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont.PHOTOPhotograph by Bill FrakesSEVEN HEAVEN Big Brown, with his telltale white marking above the front leg, basked in a crowded winner's circle.