CHAMPAGNE’S CAMPAIGNS: The Ballad of Big Brown

Even though I was there, I don’t remember much about the 2008 Belmont Stakes. My main memory of that day is picking out a spot on the third level of the Belmont Park grandstand an hour before the race. The crowd began packing everyone in like sardines, and in an effort to hold my position across from the sixteenth pole, I clutched a sign advertising the section below it for dear life. It wasn’t pretty, but after a few minutes of pushing, people got the idea that I wasn’t moving.

It’s taken me 10 years, but I’ve realized that’s a heck of a metaphor for the way racing fans hold on to certain beliefs. We hold on tight, with white-knuckled grips that signify either deeply held convictions or immense fears of being wrong, but either way, when such a topic arises in conversation, we’ll speak our respective pieces as loudly as we can.

I was a college student then. I’d just finished my sophomore year at Ithaca College, and much as I had for Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, I had successfully persuaded a parent (in this case, my father) to take me to the Belmont.

I watched with baited breath as Big Brown, the easiest of winners in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, strolled into the starting gate. The crowd’s buzz was audible, as it had been during my prior ventures to cancelled coronations in both 2003 and 2004.

The horses settled in the starting gate, among them the undefeated Big Brown, with Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux in the irons.

The race started.

And then, an instant later, it was over.

– – – – –

I got the inspiration to write this column from a brief discussion with Desormeaux on Twitter Wednesday morning. I’d just woken up, 45 minutes before the start of my work day, and I saw that he’d retweeted something saying he was online and answering questions.

Having heard several theories on what happened that muggy Long Island afternoon, and having not yet acquired the filter that comes with consciousness, I asked if any of the conspiracy theories about that afternoon held water. Desormeaux, predictably, was not amused.

There was, however, an ulterior motive to my line of questioning. If you ask a group of racing fans who the top horse of the mid to late-2000’s was, you’ll get a fair variety of responses. Many fans will say either Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra. Some will say fellow Hall of Famer Curlin, or even Rags to Riches (the filly who edged the two-time Horse of the Year in the 2007 Belmont). Barbaro will also be fondly remembered, if only for the memories of what might have been if not for his catastrophic injury in the Preakness. Big Brown’s name likely doesn’t come up in that conversation. For various reasons, the bay son of Boundary isn’t seen as one of the best of his generation, despite wins in every single race he finished.

Much of this is undoubtedly due to the horse’s connections, which seemed to be under an interminable cloud of controversy. Big Brown was owned by IEAH Stables, which operated as horse racing’s version of a hedge fund. They had achieved considerable success with horses like 2007 turf champion Kip Deville and eventual 2008 champion sprinter Benny the Bull, but something about the enterprise did not mesh well with the racing establishment.

As the excellent Deadspin article on IEAH cited, perhaps it was the “new money” aspect of the organization that rubbed some the wrong way. What did not help the public perception of the enterprise, though, was IEAH’s trainer of choice. Rick Dutrow was one of the most gifted horsemen on the NYRA circuit, one that many feel was railroaded when he was slapped with a 10-year suspension. He was also brash, opinionated, and never afraid of a microphone, especially when the topic of conversation was one of his fastest trainees. As gifted a conditioner as he was, Dutrow did himself no favors when it came to public relations.

Horses cannot choose their connections. Many of the four-legged immortals whose form we admire were so talented that their owners and trainers were, in some way, bystanders to their brilliance, just like the rest of us. Man o’ War was that way. So was Secretariat. A case could be made for Zenyatta as well, given her personality and tendency to prance around walking rings as if she owned them (with one exception, she may as well have).

Even if he had cruised to victory in the Belmont Stakes, Big Brown would have never had that luxury. His owners were not the “happy to be there” types, nor was his trainer. A sect of the racing industry would have viewed Big Brown as the black sheep of the Triple Crown winners, horse racing’s equivalent to the cousin or uncle that never gets invited over for Thanksgiving dinner. In no way is this the fault of a supremely talented racehorse that was on the verge of greatness, but such is the legacy of Team Big Brown.

For these reasons, Big Brown has been given the short end of the stick for a decade. In no way is this more evident than when you compare the 2008 standout to a horse of more recent vintage that hit a similar wall (or, more accurately, was hit by a similar hoof) when going a mile and a half in New York.

– – – – –

The year was 2014. A California-bred of humble beginnings had taken the horse racing world by storm, and was now one Big Sandy lap away from doing what Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, and Big Brown could not.

California Chrome walked into the starting gate beneath Victor Espinoza, whose career the son of Lucky Pulpit almost singlehandedly revived. Once again, I was there. This time, I was on assignment for HRTV, and I was watching not from the grandstand, but from the Long Island Railroad platform near the top of the stretch, less than 100 yards from the HRTV trailer.

Chrome broke a bit awkwardly, but settled into what seemed like a fine trip. Turning for home, he looked like a winner, and Espinoza began pumping his arms. However, when the eventual Hall of Fame reinsman stepped on the gas pedal, he found that the tank was empty. California Chrome hung and settled for fourth behind Tonalist.

Within 24 hours, former HRTV and TVG colleague Scott Hazelton had unearthed a reason for Chrome’s flat performance. Matterhorn, a hopeless longshot in the race, had stepped on the Triple Crown hopeful out of the gate, causing a massive gash that took social media by storm. In the eyes of the racing world, California Chrome’s effort went from disappointing to borderline heroic, and followers eagerly waited to see when the fan favorite would return to the track.

He raced three more times that year. He was once again one-paced in the Pennsylvania Derby, which was unapologetically viewed by his connections as both a prep and a paid workout given the incentives offered by Parx. He then ran a strong third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a race marred by Bayern’s antics out of the starting gate and a non-disqualification that’s even more indefensible now than it was at the time, before cruising home in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby on turf at Del Mar. Despite losing to Bayern twice, and despite failing to win a Grade 1 on dirt after the Preakness, California Chrome was voted the 2014 Horse of the Year.

All of this goes in stark contrast to what took place six years earlier. Big Brown was stepped on coming out of the gate by a horse named Guadalcanal, a horse for whom Joe Nevills’s “no times 17” haiku would’ve been appropriate. As Desormeaux said, ESPN followed the trail of blood all the way back to the barn. Big Brown bounced back to win twice more before being retired prior to a highly-anticipated Breeders’ Cup Classic showdown with Curlin…and yet could finish no better than third in Horse of the Year voting. Curlin had done enough to earn the trophy despite a fourth-place finish in the Classic, but the real shock was that Zenyatta, who hadn’t yet run against males, finished second. The four Grade 1 wins, two of which came in Triple Crown races, as well as a win over older horses on turf in a $500,000 race…earned Big Brown 13 first-place votes.

Why does history make Big Brown pay for the sins of his connections? Separate the horse from the humans around him, and you have one of the most brilliant horses since the turn of the millennium, one that may have been even better on turf than he was on dirt. Racing’s lineage is filled with imperfect characters of the human variety, whether any of us want to admit it or not. The way we perceive Big Brown, 10 years after his failed Triple Crown bid, reflects the ever-selective “character clause” that’s so popular in other sports. I’m of the belief that one can separate the horse from the people associated with it, and that this is the way we should approach the 2008 dual classic winner.

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