No one was talking Triple Crown in April, when the trees had not leafed out, when nights were cold and the Kentucky Derby seemed far off.
Chris McCarron perhaps had an idea something was on the wind — even if no one was yet using the ”Triple Crown“ words.
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The retired Hall of Fame jockey organizes a celebrity team penning event each April at the Kentucky Horse Park to benefit the Don MacBeth Fund for injured riders. He asked Big Brown's jockey, Kent Desormeaux, whether he'd like to participate.
Desormeaux told McCarron, ”I'm not taking a chance (of getting injured) by chasing cows when I've got a chance to go out there in the Kentucky Derby.“
Any other year would have been fine with Desormeaux for helping out McCarron. But this year? Forget it. Desormeaux's racing season has been all about Big Brown. And now Big Brown is racing's story of the season.
With less than a week until Big Brown attempts to nail down the Triple Crown in the $1 million Belmont Stakes, the question is coming up everywhere:
Can he do it? Can he win this thing? In 30 years since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown, 10 3-year-olds have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, then failed to win the third leg in the Crown, the Belmont Stakes.
But maybe the more important question is whether winning the first two races means anything for Big Brown as he approaches the third round — or whether the Belmont Stakes is such a different kind of test that winning the first two legs means little when it gets down to the final round.
In many years, the quick answer would hang on ominous-sounding words like ”distance in the pedigree.“ Big Brown does not have 11/2 miles coming from the genes of his sire, Boundary, or from that one's sire, Danzig. But he could find the right stuff for the long-distance haul from Nureyev, the sire of his mother, Mien.
This is the year, however, when it might not matter whether Big Brown has the genetics to run a marathon or a mile. He has demonstrated so much athletic superiority over his competition that he might outmaneuver and outrun them a third time, just as he did in the Derby and Preakness.
Any way you look at Big Brown, he's a highly unusual horse.
”Spectacular Bid is the horse right now that this horse reminds you of,“ said McCarron, who won the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes twice — but not in the same years. McCarron came close in 1987 with Alysheba and blames himself for losing the Belmont Stakes.
He remembers Spectacular Bid winning the first two legs of the Crown in 1979 with the little-known rider Ronnie Franklin. Later, Bill Shoemaker took over as jockey.
”When I watched Shoe ride him,“ McCarron said, ”he looked like he had gears. He had great speed, but he would settle in behind horses, and he would make a run when he needed to stay out of trouble, when the other riders would try to trap him or whatever, then Shoe would sit on him till the head of the lane and boom — he'd go again.“
If this sounds familiar, it's exactly the way Big Brown runs.
”He's just got this big, powerful stride,“ McCarron said. ”He has this high cruising speed and, on top of the high cruising speed, he's able to turn it into another gear when Kent asks him to go.“
McCarron said he has been most impressed with Big Brown's maneuverability, a talent that allows him to relax after leaving the gate, then to accelerate to secure a position, then to relax again and still have enough left for a big run in the stretch.
”Very few horses have that many runs,“ McCarron said. ”They usually have two: a run leaving the gate to put them in a position where they're comfortable, then another run that usually begins around the three-eighths pole. But this horse has shown ... three good runs in the Derby. And he gave three really strong runs in the Preakness as well.
”It doesn't sound like a big deal, two runs or three runs,“ McCarron said, ”but it's a big difference. Late in a race, if they give you that kind of acceleration when they should be starting to get tired, that's a true sign of athletic ability and class.“
What could go wrong for Big Brown in the Belmont? His tendency toward cracked hoofs might be problematic. The pressure of a hard race combined with a long race could compromise his feet. Although another crack might not appear — if one ever does — until sometime later.
If Casino Drive, related to two Belmont Stakes winners, presses Big Brown for the long haul, that also could prove problematic. Big Brown will have to dig down deeper than he's ever dug.
That's what makes a horse race. And that's what people will be looking for — a horse to beat Big Brown, even if they would like to see another winner of the elusive Triple Crown.
Many, many things can go wrong in the third leg, as those near-misses since Affirmed's crown demonstrated.
”It's a 11/2-mile race with plenty of time to make mistakes,“ said Jorge Velasquez, the jockey on Alydar who tested Affirmed every step of the three Triple Crown races.
The 11/2-mile Belmont Park track has also been trouble for some jockeys, confusing those who weren't used to riding there.
”Instead of making your move at the 3 or 31/2 pole you're making it at the 4 or 41/2,“ Velasquez said, ”thinking it's the 31/2.“
This should not be a problem for Desormeaux. He's been riding regularly in New York.
Many thought Franklin moved Spectacular Bid too soon in the Belmont Stakes. Franklin was a Maryland rider who was not sufficiently familiar with the New York tracks.
The late Buddy Delp, trainer of Spectacular Bid, accused Franklin of blowing the race after chasing an 80-1 shot. And this despite Delp's information, revealed later, that a safety pin the colt stepped on the morning of the race might have compromised his chances. The safety-pin story was never popularly accepted, and most people simply believed the jockey moved too soon.
Other things have happened to Triple Crown hopefuls in the Belmont Stakes. Tim Tam, winner of the 1958 Derby and Preakness, broke an ankle in the Belmont and still finished second.
War Emblem, who liked to have things his own way on the lead, stumbled at the start of the 2002 Belmont, found himself behind horses, and never ran his race. Big Brown has also stumbled coming out of the gate, but he is so athletic that he has been able to recover quickly.
Much can go wrong. But on the 11 occasions that the Triple Crown has been won, everything has seemed to come together at the right time for the winning horse.
You can go by the words of wisdom from John Veitch, trainer of runner-up Alydar in Affirmed's Triple Crown year: ”It takes a super horse that will withstand everything and everybody.“
Or you can find wisdom in what the late, great trainer for Calumet Farm, H.A. Jimmy Jones once said: ”To win the Triple Crown, you have to have a pretty fair horse in a weak year.“
Big Brown appears to have the right stuff — in the right year. Whether it will all come together for him at the right time is the unknown factor that will make this 140th Belmont Stakes a race of great interest.