It's all over but for the coronation. Big Brown wraps up his Triple Crown campaign Saturday in the $1 million Belmont Stakes and he's as close to a sure thing as a mortal horse can be.
”I still believe in my heart of hearts that as long as our horse doesn't run into trouble in the race, we're clearly the best horse in the race,“ said Michael Iavarone, managing partner in IEAH Stables, which owns Big Brown with Paul Pompa Jr.
Perhaps never before in modern times has a Triple Crown campaign gone so smoothly for the favorite, with only one minor blip when Big Brown's hoof cracked in the rear quarter May 23.
It is now healed to the point that hoof specialist Ian McKinlay said Friday before he applied an acrylic patch that the crack is a non-issue and won't cause the big bay horse to lose the Belmont Stakes.
The Triple Crown campaign has not always gone this smoothly — even for those horses that won.
Secretariat's campaign in 1973 had trainer Lucien Laurin a nervous wreck complaining of stomach pains. Seattle Slew's progression through the 1977 Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont saw his owners falling rapidly out of popularity with racing fans and the ”Slew crew“ beginning to fall apart. For years after Affirmed won the crown in 1978, trainer Laz Barrera would show the scars from his heart bypass surgery and insist that was what the Triple Crown series did to him.
In the Big Brown camp, serenity has ruled. The five weeks unfolding since Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby May 3 have seen nothing but confidence and calm surround the team that gets Big Brown to the track and back. The horse is in the zone as are his people, from trainer Rick Dutrow to Iavarone to Michelle Nevin, Big Brown's exercise rider.
What they expect to see Saturday from jockey Kent Desormeaux is a perfect ride that will send him smoothly away from post No. 1 in the field of 10 without getting boxed in on the rail — at least for longer than it suits horse and rider's purposes.
”As long as we at some point in the race can maneuver ourselves to the outside and get a run, I don't think anything that happens early in the race is going to be that problematical for us,“ Iavarone said.
The owner acknowledged that Desormeaux will be riding with an imaginary bull's-eye on his back, as the target for other riders to box in to keep Big Brown from running off with the race. Iavarone said he's counting on Desormeaux's calmness and experience at riding around Belmont's outsized, 11/2-mile course.
”I don't think Kent's going to get rattled,“ Iavarone said. ”Other riders aren't going to affect Kent like we've seen in the past in other Triple Crown runs. His voice is going to be heard down on the racetrack and if he's looking for space, they're going to give him space.“
”This horse can do anything that you would want him to do — and Kent knows that,“ said Dutrow, the trainer.
In fact, Big Brown has done everything asked of him since the moment the starting gate opened at Churchill Downs May 3 — and Big Brown began his Kentucky Derby run from the far outside No. 20 post.
Many had thought the disadvantageous post position would compromise Big Brown in the race, in which he was the favorite. Similarly, at the Preakness Stakes two weeks later in Baltimore, many wondered if Big Brown's mid-gate position would throw him off, with him wedged between horses at the start.
Big Brown handled the Derby conundrum by gliding over from post No. 20, racing six horses wide around the first turn, then continuing wide around the far turn until he gunned ahead of the field at the top of the stretch to win by 43/4 lengths ahead of Eight Belles.
In the Preakness, the racing gods blessed Big Brown again. The horses on both sides of him broke not in toward him but out when they left the gate, which resulted in a clear path for Big Brown. Just as in the Derby, Brown came wide around the final turn and flashed his speed again, drawing off at the finish, 51/4 lengths from runner-up Macho Again.
He has made a business of defying the odds, this plain bay horse. He has snubbed negative projections, and most of all, his competition.
While pundits have debated the meaning of Big Brown's victories, as in whom-did-he-beat, Big Brown has made the debate look meaningless. What is important is that Big Brown seems to be following the path that Calumet Farm's late Hall of Fame trainer, H. A. ”Jimmy“ Jones, said was the surefire way to win the Triple Crown: to have the best horse in a weak year.
Big Brown has seemed marked for this moment from the beginning. He was born the afternoon that an important prep for the Kentucky Derby was being run at Keeneland: the 2005 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. Foaling assistants at his home farm, Monticule in Lexington, were able to divert a difficult birth when he began the process in the wrong position. The incident gave the crew ”a scary moment,“ recalled farm manager Dominique Tijou.
Big Brown was born with an odd birthmark near his left elbow, a white spot that grew to be the size of a baseball. Breeder Gary Knapp, owner of Monticule, jokingly told prospective buyers at the Fasig-Tipton yearling sales in 2006 that the strange circle of white hair was the mark of the racing gods.
Now, undefeated in five starts, Big Brown is proving that remark to be prophetic.
His competitors Saturday include three from the Kentucky Derby who have not raced since that race: Denis of Cork, Anak Nakal, and Tale of Ekati; two from the Preakness, Macho Again and Icabad Crane; a colt who has never won a race but is the only one here to have raced at 11/2 miles, albeit on the turf, Guadalcanal; and three others that Big Brown has not previously raced against: Ready's Echo, Da' Tara and Casino Drive.
Remember, as they parade to post for this 140th Belmont Stakes, that Big Brown is still mortal. He might commit an error that could cancel the coronation. But remember also the white spot near his elbow — the mark of the racing gods — the difficult birth on the afternoon of a Blue Grass Stakes, and the serenity that has presided with the confidence in his camp.
Big Brown might be marked to reside in the pantheon of Triple Crown winners, which numbers only 11. It will all become clear Saturday evening shortly after 6:25 p.m.