Michael Iavarone can’t recall many mornings at the racetrack that started off as idyllic as Monday’s.
Unfortunately for the co-president of IEAH Stables, he and his partners ultimately will remember the morning of October 13 as the day they had to absorb their toughest blow since being involved in horse racing.
The meteoric career of Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Big Brown came to an abrupt end Monday morning when the bay colt injured his right front foot during a workout over the turf at Aqueduct, 12 days before what was expected to be his final career start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on October 25 at Santa Anita Park.
The son of Boundary, who is owned by IEAH Stables and Paul Pompa, Jr., had his connections beaming after completing a solid 6-furlong work in company with stablemate and Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Kip Deville in 1:12.93 Monday.
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As Big Brown was heading back to the barn, Iavarone said trainer Rick Dutrow noticed the colt had grabbed a quarter on the inside of his right front foot, tearing away what was described as a 3-4-inch chunk of flesh.
While the injury is not always considered career threatening, the length of time needed for the soft tissue to heal — 60 to 90 days — meant the Breeders’ Cup was out of the question and, thus, the colt’s racing days were over.
“Today was a tough day obviously,” Iavarone said during a national teleconference. “To me, the work looked outstanding. They were like two F-15s in formation together. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve seen in the morning.
“I go back to the barn and saw this serious look on Rick’s face. He showed me the horse and when I got my eyes on it I knew immediately we were in trouble. Any chance at the Classic was lost, and there was no choice but to retire him.”
While horses sometimes grab themselves when leaving the gate, Iavarone said this was the first time such a thing had occurred with any of IEAH’s horses, much less during a workout.
“When horses are extending themselves, their hind leg can make contact with the hind of the front and it will take the flesh off from the back of it,” Iavarone said. “It’s not something that’s foreign but I’ve never had it happen to me. He tore it up so bad even if we had wraps on him, he would have tore right through that.”
Iavarone said as long as infection does not set in, which is rare, Big Brown should make a full recovery.
When reached by the Herald-Leader on Monday morning, a disheartened Dutrow was clipped in his response.
“He screwed up his foot; he’s going to miss (the Breeders’ Cup),” the trainer said, refusing to elaborate.
While Big Brown has been plagued by quarter cracks throughout his career, including one that occurred before his last-place effort in the Belmont Stakes on June 7, Iavarone said the current injury had no relation to the colt’s past problems.
“It’s just a stroke of bad luck,” he said. “A devastating blow to the gut.”
Big Brown’s appearance in the Breeders’ Cup was much anticipated as it was likely to be the first and only meeting between him and reigning Horse of the Year Curlin.
Like Curlin, Big Brown, who was bred in Kentucky by Monticule Farm, went from unknown commodity to racing phenom in a matter of months, winning the Kentucky Derby by 43/4 lengths in just his fourth career start and taking the Preakness by 51/4 lengths two weeks later.
From there, however, controversy began to overtake the Big Brown camp. Dutrow had previously stated the colt received regular doses of the anabolic steroid Winstrol.
Dutrow said the colt was off the steroid by the time he ran in the Belmont Stakes. While many thought he was a near lock to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978, the bay colt faltered badly and was eased in the stretch by jockey Kent Desormeaux — leaving many to wonder if the hoof injury and/or lack of steroids played a role.
Big Brown came back to score a gutty victory in the Grade I Haskell Invitational on August 3, and then he won the Monmouth Stakes on turf against older horses by a neck on September 13.
“I don’t think we got to the bottom of Big Brown,” Iavarone said. “He won the Derby and Preakness on sheer ability and was just starting to develop as a professional racehorse.”
Jess Jackson, majority owner of Curlin, released a statement expressing his dismay over the Derby winner’s retirement.
“I have always said what an incredible horse Big Brown is and that the bay colt brought energy and excitement to our industry, especially during his run at the Triple Crown,” Jackson said. “Now, we all join together in wishing Big Brown a speedy recovery.”
Case Clay, president of Three Chimneys Farm, which will stand Big Brown at stud, said the Midway farm was saddened by the news but is looking forward to his future on the commercial market.
“I think his brilliance is the number one thing that makes him attractive as a stallion,” Clay said by phone Monday. “We’ll never know what would have happened in the Breeders’ Cup, but you can’t take away his Derby, his Preakness and his Haskell. He still has a lot in his arsenal. He’s the best of his generation, that’s clear.”
Clay did not have a timetable on when Big Brown’s stud fee would be announced or when the horse would arrive at the picturesque Central Kentucky farm. He also did not express any concerns over Big Brown potentially passing on his fragile feet to his progeny.
“The foot problems are not hereditary as we have sires like Dynaformer and Yes It’s True that have had foot problems and they’ve gone on to have great careers,” Clay said.
Big Brown is retired with seven wins from eight career starts, including the Grade I Florida Derby, and earnings of $3,614,500.
“It kills me to get this close, it kills me,” Iavarone lamented. “This is the first time we’ve experienced something so devastating.”