Big Brown seems to be 'for real'...another Secretariat?

May 6, 2008 7:00 PM

Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein | I had the exacta cold Saturday afternoon in the Kentucky Derby – Big Brown and Eight Belles, $141.60 for every $2, and I still wound up sick at heart.

I took Rick Dutrow’s word that his colt was the best 3-year-old in America, and I took Larry Jones’ judgment that his filly was special enough to run a mile and a quarter against 19 males.

She was, too, outrunning 18 of them, and then, having attained immortality of a sort, she was gone, lying dead on the hallowed Churchill track, which seemed haunted as well.

Two top racehorses, Eight Belles on Saturday and Chelokee the day before, the colt injured severely but still living, removed from the scene on successive days. Those in racing understand the fragility of these thoroughbreds, but the deaths provided grist for the mill of those who consider racing a cruel sport. The irony of Eight Belles beating 18 colts and then stumbling to her death pulling up will be used as an accusatory finger of shame pointing at her connections, and charging they never should have run the young filly a mile and a quarter in the first week of May.

Ruffian came to mind, of course, and Go for Wand, and obviously Barbaro and the other stars that have gone down and, as the polite saying goes, were "humanely euthanized" to end their suffering.

Even Dr. Larry Bramlage, the chief arbiter of life and death for fallen horses in classic races on television, seemed shaken as he told NBC commentator Kenny Rice that Eight Belles ankles were so severely shattered that she could not stand there was no chance of repair or salvation.

The NBC cameras turned away from the scene, having learned from experience and criticism in other disasters that the racing industry would rather spare its shrinking public the sight of pain and suffering rather than satisfy the natural morbid curiosity that accompanies all tragedies.

The accident was handled as adroitly as it is possible to handle these matters.

On the positive and more joyous side, thoroughbred racing can exult that once again it has pulled the rabbit out of the hat, and another charismatic superstar has arrived to help save it.

Just as Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, and Barbaro in his fight for life, won vast followings, along comes Big Brown to bring happiness to thoroughbred racing, and to United Parcel Service, which should have been sponsoring the Derby instead of the hugely annoying "Kentucky Derby by Yum Brands" that the trade press has obligingly, and surprisingly, gone along with, using the clumsy designation religiously in coverage.

The Preakness and Belmont lie ahead, but it appears trainer Dutrow was right about his charge, and owner Michael Iavarone – or was it co-owner Richard Schiavo? – was right on when he called Dutrow after the colt’s first stakes victory last summer and said, "I’ve got to have that horse. He’ll win the Kentucky Derby for us."

He should win the Preakness too, and the Belmont, and become the 12th horse to capture thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. Rick Dutrow has had, as Bob Costas mentioned to his face, "a checkered career," a polite way of saying he has had had a friendly relationship at time with substances that have no business in a race horse in competition. Dutrow had answered the question earlier and often in the week prior to the Derby, saying some of the penalties he had received he deserved and some he did not. That probably can be said by any offender who breaks the law on more than one occasion.

We feel certain that Big Brown was racing on his own horsepower, and that this is a very, very special horse. Jockey Kent Desormeaux, who won two Kentucky Derbys before Saturday’s third, called him the best horse he has ever ridden. Either that, or this is a very, very ordinary crop of 3-year-olds. It could, of course, be a combination of both, but it will not matter if Big Brown stays sound and the rest do not improve. As he stands today, poised to sweep the Preakness and Belmont, who of the 19 he humbled that are still alive have a chance to beat him?

Of all of the much ballyhooed horses that won honors and then fell by the wayside in recent years, this one appears to be for real. We may be seeing the next Secretariat.