THOSE WHISPERS out of South Florida in December have now reached a June crescendo. Horse-racing lore is built on those lonely mornings when only a few people get a glimpse of potential greatness. Big Brown, a 2-year-old colt with only one start, had worked with stablemate Diamond Stripes, a 4-year-old winner of several graded stakes and a horse that 3 months in the future, would go to Dubai, where he would win a major stake on the World Cup card.
Big Brown had not just worked with Diamond Stripes. Big Brown had beaten Diamond Stripes.
After the work, Big Brown's trainer, Rick Dutrow, told the colt's owner, Michael Iavarone, he hoped nothing was wrong with Diamond Stripes. Then, he told him that, if nothing was wrong, Iavarone had himself a serious race horse. Nothing was wrong with Diamond Stripes.
The public did not know about the colt until March 5 when Big Brown finally got back to the races after battling foot issues. Even Dutrow did not really know.
"Rick told me he didn't know how good Big Brown was until he won that [March 5] race," said Tony Dutrow, Rick's brother and a top trainer at Philadelphia.
Early this evening, Big Brown will come out of the starting gate at Belmont Park, 1 1/2 miles from becoming only the second unbeaten Triple Crown winner, and the first TC winner in 30 years. As the days have melted away, more and more people have looked for reasons to beat Big Brown. So far, none of the reasons is as good as Big Brown.
There now might be one fewer reason, and a very significant one. Peter Pan Stakes winner Casino Drive was the only horse in the race that had shown even a hint of the ability needed to beat Big Brown. Yesterday morning, the colt did not go to the track to train after several days of slow, somewhat bizarre gallops and very slow "workouts."
There was some heat in the colt's left rear hoof. It was treated all day. By day's end, Nobutaka Tada, spokesman for the colt's owner, said: "He might have stepped on something . . . Now, he's OK and we will go ahead and race him. If he stays as he is now, we will go ahead."
Stay tuned on that.
Shortly after noon yesterday, foot specialist Ian McKinlay put an acrylic patch over the quarter crack on the inside of Big Brown's left front hoof. McKinlay described the procedure as "routine."
Big Brown has never been tested in five starts. If even an older horse as accomplished as Diamond Stripes could not beat Big Brown, it is obvious why he will be such an overwhelming favorite.
If you are not quite sure why Rick Dutrow has been so confident for so long about Big Brown, that work against Diamond Stripes has no doubt stuck with him. He saw it. He knew what it could mean.
When Big Brown was bred in Kentucky, nobody could have expected this. Trace the colt back three generations on each side and there is the legendary Northern Dancer, winner of the 1964 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and, after a stallion career in Maryland, absolutely one of history's greatest influences on the breed. But Northern Dancer blood is in thousands of horses. Why this one?
Snake River Canyon ran at Churchill Downs 5 days after Big Brown won the Derby there. The 4-year-old gelding finished third in a $50,000 claiming race, 10 lengths behind. He has raced 14 times and won once.
Snake River Canyon is out of the mare Mien, same as Big Brown.
The year older half-brother has won $41,000 and, as a gelding, has no residual value. Big Brown has won $2.7 million and has a value of at least $50 million, which will rise if the colt wins the TC.
In horse racing, you never know.
On Jan. 1, Big Brown was not on any serious list of Derby contenders. The colt could not even be trained because of a painful hoof issue in his right front foot. A few months before, Big Brown had been kept out of training because of a similar issue in his left front foot.
Now, the colt enters the Belmont with a more minor issue, the crack that has been wired, patched and sealed and has gotten so much attention in the last 2 weeks.
Last year, 72,691 horses raced in North America. Five percent (or 3,720) of those horses earned no money. Slightly more than 50 percent of those horses did not win a race. Only 18.8 percent earned more than $25,000.
The numbers will be similar this year. So, how do you explain Big Brown? Really, you don't.
There is at least one person who will be at Belmont Park today who was at Churchill Downs and Pimlico in 1978 when Affirmed won the Derby and the Preakness. Back then, Triple Crowns were commonplace. Secretariat had won in 1973 and Seattle Slew in 1977. Surely, there would be more after Affirmed. So that person saw no need to go to Belmont Park in 1978.
That same person was at Belmont Park in 1987, 1989, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2004, all years with a Triple Crown on the line. He had been at the Derby and Preakness each of those years. Still waiting to see that Triple Crown live.
Maybe, this, finally, is the one. Five races. Five wins. Thirty-nine lengths between Big Brown and the rest. Maybe, Big Brown really is the one. *