Big Brown, Casino Drive should pack them in at Belmont

May 20, 2008 7:00 PM

Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |We know now how good Big Brown is, after that rocket burst in Pimlico’s stretch in the Preakness.

What we don’t know is how good Casino Drive is, and until we find out June 7 in the Belmont, a race that will draw a record or near-record crowd, despite all the bleating of media about the sky falling on racing. Meanwhile, we can do what media will do for the next three weeks: speculate excitedly as to whether racing has another Affirmed and Alydar feud on its hands after 30 years.

It is quite possible, and meanwhile racing has wrenched itself from the grasp of the racing and non-racing press, which will be forced to let the late and lamented Eight Belles rest in peace.

Now comes the incessant repetition of the grimy Rick Dutrow story, with 72 penalties on his card and media buying into his confessionals of reform. He said he had no idea what steroids did, and he used them on all his horses because his vet told him they would help them.

Dutrow at least is honest in one respect. He makes no pretense at being an intellectual, admitting his cultural opportunities are pretty much limited to watching "Seinfeld" reruns.

Racing’s new human poster boy will have to take a backseat, however, to the rags-to-riches story of the principal owner in this wildly improbable success story.

Michael Iavarone is 37 years old. He was a star high school pitcher on Long Island, good enough to draw major league scouting attention, but a shoulder injury ended that.

The injury, however, did not affect his mind.

He got a business degree at little St. Joseph’s College on the island, then answered a classified ad in New York Newsday. As Ed McNamara of that newspaper tells the story, Iavarone got the job for cold-calling as a Wall Street broker, at seven bucks an hour.

Five years ago, flush with Wall Street money, he quit and founded something called International Equine Acquisition Holdings (IEAH). He added a former Smith Barney exec, Richard Schiavo, as a partner later that year. "At first," he told McNamara, "we were running some bad horses, and my father told me, ‘You’d better get some good ones.’"

He listened, and with the former Yankees manager Joe Torre as an investor, he bought a filly named Sugar Punch, which turned out to be a stakes winner. He then acquired a colt named Kip Deville, bought for half a million two years ago. It won the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Monmouth Park last fall.

Last Labor Day, watching racing from Saratoga at a friend’s house, Iavarone saw a 2-year-old cruise home by 11¼ lengths on the turf at Saratoga. He says he picked up the phone, called Dutrow in Saratoga Springs, and said, "I have to have that colt. He is our Derby winner."

He was right. It was Big Brown.

He supposedly had to pay somewhere between $2 and $3 million to get a 75% interest, but whatever the number it sounds pretty cheap today.

Last Saturday, on the way to the Preakness, Iavarone signed papers with Three Chimney Farms in Kentucky for $50 million or so for breeding rights to Big Brown, starting next year.

After his stroll in the park last Saturday at Pimlico, Big Brown now has won $2.3 million this year, and counting, with the Belmont ahead.

If he wins next month, he almost certainly will be retired on the spot. Racing is precarious and perilous as it turned out being for Eight Belles in the Derby and for countless but anonymous other unfortunates less notable than her. You don’t fool around with a $50 million investment on the racetrack when the horse can enjoy the comforts of the breeding shed.

As for Iavarone, those business courses he took at St. Joseph’s must be pretty good. Check them out.

That’s the happiness racing story of the week.

The unhappy one also involves Churchill Downs, but in a far different role. It has filed a suit in federal court in Louisville charging a number of racing organizations and individuals with conspiracy and boycott violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The horsemen had joined to form something called the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Group, an alliance of 18 horsemen’s organizations around the country, seeking a greater share of advanced wagering revenue.

This battle is just beginning. It will not gain the tidal wave of publicity that Big Brown and Casino Drive will generate in the next three weeks, but its impact on racing could be more significant long term.