OCEANPORT, N.J. — No, not again. Midway on the stretch turn, the Haskell Invitational began to look like a replay of the Belmont Stakes.
Kent Desormeaux asked Big Brown for his best, and a front-running long shot trained by Nick Zito spurted away. A roar went up from the Monmouth Park crowd of 45,132. Was the Alpha male of the 3-year-olds about to go down again?
The horse who annihilated overmatched fields in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness had to do something he'd never done: catch a horse who showed no signs of stopping. Trainer Rick Dutrow was not optimistic.
”I was concerned at the three-eighths pole, and I thought we were beat turning for home,“ Dutrow said Sunday. ”But he got down on his belly and he won.“
Coal Play and jockey Joe Bravo still led by two lengths at the eighth pole, but Big Brown was far from done. As Desormeaux wailed away a dozen times with a right-handed whip, Big Brown rallied grittily in the middle of the track. Six strides from the finish, the 1-5 favorite went by the tiring 20-1 shot and drew off by 1¾ lengths.
”He found a new gear and just kept sticking his neck out,“ Desormeaux said. ”At the top of the stretch that horse took off, but Big Brown just kept coming, and I knew we'd get him. At the three-sixteenths pole, he switched leads and then, at the eighth pole, he took off again.“
IEAH Stables co-president Michael Iavarone and Dutrow each hoisted the trophy in the mobbed winner's circle after Desormeaux acknowledged an ovation while waving his helmet. ”This was another dimension for Big Brown,“ Iavarone said. ”He showed his heart and courage, which was a side of him I hadn't seen until today.“
Never has it felt so good to earn a crucial victory over a horse beaten by a combined 41½ lengths in his previous two stakes races. ”My horse ran an awesome race,“ Bravo said. ”It's very rough when things go right for you and you don't get the win.“
Said Zito: ”I thought we had a hell of a shot turning for home. I thought to myself, "We could do this again.' I am very happy right now. We made him run, that's for sure. Big Brown looked great in the paddock and when he broke. But down the backside, I got excited. Coal Play ran a big race.“
Big Brown broke sharply from post 4 and led before Bravo gunned Coal Play (post 6) past him going by the wire for the first time. ”The plan was to go to the lead,“ Desormeaux said, ”but that would have been suicidal.“
The positions stayed the same, with Big Brown stalking Coal Play up close in the three-path down the backstretch. The fractions were strong — 46.59 seconds for a half-mile, 1:10.85 for 6 furlongs.
Then Coal Play shot clear and got a mile in 1:35.20 before Big Brown ran him down, doing the final furlong in about 12.9 seconds.
”Big Brown always won his other races with such ease,“ Desormeaux said. ”Today he showed that he's a warrior.“
The win was in doubt until the final six strides, when Big Brown prevailed on a sunny day with temperatures in the low 80s.
When Desormeaux went to the whip entering the stretch, Dutrow said, ”I thought we were going to get beat.“
Case Clay is president of Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky, where Big Brown will stand at stud starting next year. Clay's broad smile mixed joy and relief.
”I was very nervous,“ he said. ”It's been about 60 days of nervousness. I had a dream last night that he won, but this race was a lot closer than the one in my dream. We're thrilled.“
”His reputation was on the line today,“ Iavarone said. ”He's a top horse. It was a little more than I was expecting — he really struggled out there to run this horse down, but Zito's horse ran great.“
Big Brown ran 11⁄8 miles on a fast track in 1:48.31 and paid $2.40 for his sixth win in seven starts. He earned $600,000, raising his total to more than $3.3 million for IEAH, Paul Pompa Jr. and their partners. It's unlikely he'll go in the Travers Aug. 23 at Saratoga, but the Breeders' Cup Classic is still on the agenda.
”I think, right now, Rick will evaluate him, and we'll plan a sensible campaign,“ Iavarone said. ”The Breeders' Cup Classic is the ultimate goal.“
It might not be a realistic goal.
Big Brown has been syndicated for a reported $50 million and will be retired to stud after his final race.
The next step would be to take on older horses, perhaps even 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin.
However, Big Brown had a tough time defeating a somewhat weak field of 3-year-olds in the 11⁄8-mile Haskell, and another loss after the last-place Belmont Stakes finish could affect his value as a stallion.
”If it was up to me, I wouldn't run him back so quick,“ Dutrow said. ”It may not be in his best interests.“
Iavarone focused on the moment.
”It's been trying since the Belmont Stakes, obviously,“ he said. ”This is happiness, for us and for the horse.“
Cool Coal Man, also trained by Zito, was third, followed by Alaazo, Nistle's Crunch, Atoned and Magical Forest.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.