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Big Brown: Can he deliver?
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - About 4 o'clock every morning, anyone staying at a hotel on the north side of Louisville's Standiford International Airport is awakened by the roaring sound of jet airplanes, one after another, leaving at an ungodly hour if you're trying to sleep. The squadron is from the United Parcel Service, whose hub is in this city.
This city's true hub, though, is Churchill Downs. The home of the Kentucky Derby, which will be run for the 134th time on Saturday, is only a couple of miles from the airport. And Saturday afternoon, a crowd expected to number about 150,000, and an international television audience, will be watching to see what Brown can do for you.
Big Brown, named by his co-owner, Paul Pompa Jr., in honor of UPS, will be out to prove that sheer brilliance trumps all. Big Brown has raced just three times; no horse has won the Derby with such limited experience since Regret in 1915. And Big Brown will start from the far outside in the 20-horse field; no horse has won from that post since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929, when, before the invention of the mechanical starting gate, there was a walk-up start.
But Big Brown has displayed more raw talent than anyone in this field. He has won all three of his races by a combined margin of 29 lengths. In his last start, the Florida Derby, he became the first horse to win from post 12 going 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream Park since that track was reconfigured four years ago. And he has trained sensationally since arriving here earlier this week, capped off by a three-furlong blowout that Daily Racing Form caught in 35.33 seconds on Thursday morning.
All that has emboldened his trainer, Rick Dutrow, to express unwavering confidence in Big Brown. Despite the inexperience. Despite the post. Despite the quarter-crack patches Big Brown has on both front hooves. And despite the front leg wraps he wore in the workout Thursday, and which he will wear in a race for the first time on Saturday.
"I feel very confident that if Big Brown breaks with the field he will run a big race, and I just haven't seen any other horse with my eyes that can beat him," Dutrow said. "It's a mile and a quarter, a different track to run over. But we're gonna be betting on him."
Big Brown is the 3-1 favorite on the respective morning lines set by both Mike Battaglia of Churchill Downs and Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. The second choice on both lines is Colonel John, the Santa Anita Derby winner, who is the other horse in this field who has consistently trained with brilliance all week.
Colonel John, however, has his own questions. He has never raced on dirt, the surface over which the Derby is run. He is the poster child for synthetic surfaces, since all six of his races have been on synthetic. Befitting this new era in racing, 9 of the 20 horses in this year's Derby made their last starts on a synthetic surface, and three others have raced on a synthetic surface at some point in their careers. Bob Black Jack, like Colonel John, has raced exclusively on synthetic surfaces in Southern California.
Both Dutrow and Eoin Harty, the trainer of Colonel John, are running their first horse in the Derby, as are trainers David Carroll (Denis of Cork), James Kasparoff (Bob Black Jack), Paulo Lobo (Gayego), and Bennie Stutts, who gave his Derby runner, Smooth Air, a three-furlong drill in 37.99 seconds Thursday morning.
Those Derby rookies are going up against Derby winners like Michael Matz, who won with Barbaro in 2006 and is back with Visionaire; Barclay Tagg, who won with Funny Cide in 2003 and has two starters this year, Big Truck and Tale of Ekati; and Nick Zito, who won Derbies with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994 and also has two starters this year, Anak Nakal and Cool Coal Man.
In addition to Tagg and Zito, trainers Steve Asmussen (Pyro and Z Fortune), Bill Mott (Court Vision and Z Humor), and Todd Pletcher (Cowboy Cal and Monba) have two Derby starters.
There's also, for the first time since 1999, a filly trying to beat the boys. Eight Belles, who also is entered in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday, is expected to await the Derby and try to become the fourth filly to wear the roses. She has never faced males before, which is a historically significant consideration, since Regret, Genuine Risk (1980), and Winning Colors (1988) all had raced against males before their Derby victories.
Eight Belles will carry 121 pounds in the Derby, 5 pounds less than her 19 male rivals.
Questions abound on many other runners.
Pyro was considered one of the elite of this division before he finished 10th of 12 as the favorite three weeks ago in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Can that race be ignored, as it was his first start on a synthetic surface? Or was it a sign that he is tailing off?
Big Truck and Cool Coal Man also ran poorly in the Blue Grass after winning stakes races on dirt surfaces in their prior starts.
On the flip side of that are Monba and Cowboy Cal, who ran one-two in the Blue Grass, and Adriano, who won the Lane's End Stakes on Polytrack at Turfway Park.
Perhaps the best melding of the new era in racing is Gayego, who had raced exclusively on synthetic surfaces in California before his victory in the Arkansas Derby. In general this spring, California-based horses, like the now-injured Sierra Sunset in the Rebel Stakes - or older runners like Tiago in the Oaklawn Handicap and Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom - have, like Gayego, improved in their first start when moving from synthetic to dirt.
The 20 Derby runners are separated into two starting gates, with the first 14 in the main gate, and the remaining six in an auxiliary gate. Big Brown will break from the auxiliary gate, closest to the crowd, and will be the last to load into the gate.
Before they get to the gate, though, deportment will be critical. Adriano, Bob Black Jack, and Z Humor, in particular, have gotten overanxious in the paddock in prior races.
The pace figures to be contested, though the complexion changed two weeks ago when War Pass, last year's champion 2-year-old male, was injured and removed from consideration for the Derby. Big Brown, Gayego, Recapturetheglory, and Cowboy Cal all will have to try to get over from their outside draws before the first turn. Bob Black Jack, perhaps the only horse as naturally fast early as Big Brown, starts from posto13.
With 20 runners, the Derby's overall purse will be $2,211,800, with $1,451,800 going to the winner.
The Derby is the 10th race on a marathon 12-race card that begins at 11 a.m. Eastern time and is not scheduled to end until 7:34 p.m. Post time for the Derby is listed at 6:04, though it is usually run about 6:15. The Derby will be seen live on NBC in a telecast beginning at 5 p.m. ESPN2 and then ESPN are showing the previous races, with programming from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
According to Weather.com, the high temperature Saturday is forecast at 74 degrees, and there is 50 percent chance of thunderstorms. There is an 80 percent chance of storms on Friday night, but the Churchill Downs track has a deserved reputation of quickly drying.
- additional reporting by David Grening and Mike Welsch