10/14/2008 11:00PM

Big Brown's career leaves questions


PHILADELPHIA - I do not think Big Brown was going to beat Curlin in the Breeders' Cup Classic, but I can't say I was certain of that. I think Big Brown had the ability to win that race or any race.

So how good was Big Brown? There is no obvious answer.

I am thinking he was not as good as Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, or Barbaro. Had Big Brown been in the 2007 3-year-old class with Street Sense, Curlin, and Hard Spun, I think he would have won some, but would not have been dominant like he was in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Some of my thinking is based on Beyer Speed Figures, and some of it is based off what I saw. Still, even with that, I think Big Brown was a really, really good horse, maybe even better than I think.

Think about this. The colt crushed everything in the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness with hardly any training. Remember, Rick Dutrow could not even train Big Brown in January because of his problematic feet. Yet, with so little preparation and only one race as a 2-year-old (on grass), Big Brown ran off those four consecutive wins from March 5 to May 17.

The Derby is never supposed to be easily won. Big Brown won it easily as Kent Desormeaux simply steered, never trying to save ground, just riding like he was on a horse with an engine. The 109 Beyer was the best of Big Brown's career. No matter what was behind Big Brown, that was an awesome performance for a horse making just his fourth lifetime start.

By the Beyers, Big Brown was a cinch in the Derby, a free space in exotics. Still, there were many doubters because of all that history the colt was trying to overcome - three starts, post 20, etc. Sometimes, talent trumps history. That day in Kentucky, Big Brown outran his numbers and made a joke of historic Derby trends.

I don't think Big Brown was ever that good again, perhaps because he had all those races bunched together with so little time for training. The colt won the Derby on pure talent. The Preakness looked great, but it wasn't very fast.

I thought the Belmont was rider error. I really believe Desormeaux misread the race. If he puts Big Brown on the lead, I think Big Brown wins. But we will never know.

"We've got conflicting theories," Michael Iavarone, co-president of Big Brown's majority owner IEAH, told me last month after Acai ran second in the Pennsylvania Derby at Philadelphia Park. "You have to take all of the things that happened. Your horse breaks from the gate and he breaks sharply to the right, which he's never done before. So you say, 'Well, maybe the starter out in his line of view forced him to break to the right.' When he breaks to the right and he gets stepped on, he dislodges a shoe, he gets rank once he gets stepped on, runs up the back of another horse.

"Kent then strangles him, takes him to the outside, collides with another horse, gets taken out in the 15 path down the backside. This is all going a mile and a half in 93 degrees. I think the theory is it has to be all of them."

Could be all of that. Could be something else. Clearly, that was the fluke in an otherwise perfect resume.

"Any time you have a horse that allows you to win races like the Florida Derby, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Haskell in the same year, you can run dead last in any race and walk away with a smile," Iavarone said.

What Iavarone did not understand was how the Belmont ended. Losing was one thing, Big Brown being eased quite another.

"That was the only regret I had in the whole day," Iavarone said. "When you've got $15 million bet on a horse, I think you owe it to the fans to ride a horse out. I came down pretty hard on Kent the next day in my office about it . . . His answer was 'I'm not going to allow this horse to run fourth or fifth.' I don't think any jockey has the right to do that with the public's money."

Big Brown won $3.6 million in just eight starts, including four Grade 1 wins. That can't happen by accident.

Big Brown was as good on grass as he was on dirt, sort of like Barbaro in that way. The colt had phenomenal early speed, but did not need the lead to win.

That Curlin, Street Sense, and Hard Spun all made it to the 2007 Classic is the exception to the recent 3-year-old rules. At least we got a small glimpse of Big Brown after the Triple Crown, but one more glimpse would have answered so many questions, including the ones whose answers shall remain elusive: How good was Big Brown and how close was the colt to greatness?