02/20/2015 3:08PM

Beyer: Brown’s patient approach both an asset, hindrance

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Even before the 2014 Breeders’ Cup, racing fans recognized that Chad Brown is a fast-rising star in the Thoroughbred business, one with a magic touch handling grass runners. But it was at Santa Anita last fall that Brown certified that he is in the top echelon of his profession. He did something that only three other trainers have ever accomplished, winning three races in a single Breeders’ Cup. Those victories – all on grass – helped boost his horses’ year-end purse winnings to $15.3 million, second-best in the nation behind Todd Pletcher’s all-powerful stable.

Almost any ambitious young horseman would now be setting his sights on the biggest prizes in the sport – the Triple Crown races and the other major stakes that lead to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Yet Brown is surprisingly cautious about tackling the nation’s biggest races on dirt. He is certainly not lacking in ambition, but he is thoughtful about everything he does as a trainer.  

Brown grew up near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and got hooked on the game by going to the races at Saratoga. He decided, after graduating from Cornell, that he wanted to be a Thoroughbred trainer, and he went on to a school of higher learning: the barn of trainer Bobby Frankel.

The Hall-of-Fame horseman could be blunt, nasty, stonily silent, intimidating. But as Brown worked for Frankel over a 5 1/2-year period, he received an extraordinary education. He saw that Frankel’s great assets were his patience, his willingness to adjust his methods, and his cold-eyed realism. Brown absorbed the lesson that you don’t manage horses with wishful thinking. “You have to be honest about everything you see,” Brown said. “You can’t lie to yourself.”

Brown left Frankel in 2007 to launch his own career and the next year saddled Maram to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. He was off and running. 

He established his reputation as a specialist with turfers, and the reputation fueled his success further. When owners wanted to ship European-based runners to North America, many sent their horses to Brown. Since 2011, the trainer has recorded 19 Grade 1 stakes victories, 18 on grass, 10 with horses who started their careers in Europe. He has won a single Grade 1 on dirt. The record is so lopsided that it’s fair to ask whether Brown is a one-dimensional trainer.

His statistics indicate otherwise. Over the last five years, he has the same winning rate on dirt and turf: a lofty 26 percent. But he clearly has a special affinity for turf runners.

“Training them is not just a matter of getting them to run as fast as they can and picking the right races for them,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of teaching with turf horses. They have to be taught to obey the rider. They have to be taught to use their [acceleration] when you ask them. You have to have a lot of patience with turf horses.” 

U.S. dirt racing is a wholly different game – one in which training is indeed a matter of getting them to run as fast as they can. While turf races typically feature a slow early pace and a strong acceleration at the end, dirt races are run hard from start to finish. Horses have to be trained hard to be fit for them. Moreover, any colt with Triple Crown ambitions has to be trained hard early in his career to be well prepared by the spring of his 3-year-old season. Brown may have learned from Frankel that patience is a supreme virtue for a horseman, but this is not necessarily so in the Triple Crown. Frankel was 0 for 8 in the Kentucky Derby. It is the aggressive trainers such as D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert who excel in the 3-year-old classics.

Brown initially focused on grass because owners sent him European turf runners or domestic horses with turf-oriented pedigrees. Now he has a more diverse stable. In 2013, he sent out Normandy Invasion to a fourth-place finish in the Derby. Many handicappers thought the colt had run the best race at Churchill Downs and that he could come back to win the Preakness. But Normandy Invasion was not a robust animal, and he had nagging physical problems, and Brown didn’t send him to Pimlico. Was he being properly prudent, or did he miss an opportunity that a trainer such as Lukas would have seized?

This year, Brown nominated 24 colts to the Triple Crown, and the list was filled with expensive pedigrees that can win U.S. classic races – with colts by formidable sires of dirt runners such as Tapit, Street Cry, Medaglia d’Oro, and Smart Strike. One of Brown’s youngsters, Leave the Light On, won the important Remsen Stakes as a 2-year-old before being sidelined by an ankle injury, but 13 of his 24 nominees hadn’t made their racing debuts by the start of February, too late to have a plausible chance of reaching the Triple Crown. Was he being too patient with them?

Brown understands that he needs to find the right balance between patience and aggressiveness to prepare horses for the nation’s major races on dirt. “I’m not a guy to push horses, but I don’t want to be too conservative,” he said. “I think the answer lies in the middle. I want to give horses a chance to get there [to the Triple Crown], but I want to have an eye on the big picture – winning races when the horses are 4 or 5.” 

In fact, he may find that the best strategy is closer to the aggressiveness of a trainer like Lukas than to the prudence of his mentor, Frankel. At the age of 36, Brown has plenty of time to work out the right answer.

Ó2015 The Washington Post