11/05/2008 12:00AM

Breeders give Big Brown a thumbs up

Barbara D. Livingston
Breeders got their first look at Big Brown Wednesday at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., and most of them came away impressed.

MIDWAY, Ky. - This is the shopping season for breeders, a time to visit Bluegrass stud farms' many open houses and scout out stallions to mate to their mares. Like other shoppers this year, breeders are feeling the economic pinch, as evidenced by the heavy losses at the ongoing Keeneland November breeding stock sale. But that didn't stop 300 to 400 people from stopping by Wednesday to look at one of the pricier, and accomplished, new sires for 2009: Big Brown, who enters stud this year with a $65,000 fee.

The reigning Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner arrived at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway last weekend, just in time to debut during the sales, when many farms traditionally put their stallions up for breeders' inspection. The injured right front heel that prompted Big Brown's retirement in mid-October was patched with what a farm employee called a "soft, pliable putty that doesn't put any pressure on the area," and the 3-year-old Boundary colt did not appear lame on it. He was wearing a Z-bar shoe, which has a bar that zigzags across the bottom of the hoof from toe to heel and is designed to relieve pressure on and stabilize movement of the heel bulbs.

The $65,000 stud fee was a barrier for some breeders feeling newly thrifty after a down yearling market and a nearly calamitous opening to the November sales. But it was lower than many had anticipated in May when Three Chimneys and IEAH Stables inked Big Brown's private stud deal, which is said to have put the horse's total value at $50 million.

"I think they priced him well," said Russell Jones of Walnut Green. "The fear was, when the original value came out, it was hard to compute into a stud fee. But they forgot that, and they priced him with the market in mind. That was the right thing to do. I would be glad to recommend him."

"We looked at what Derby winners have retired for in the past few years, and it's been from $75,000 to $100,000, and I think the expectation was somewhere in there," Three Chimneys owner Robert Clay said. "We looked at the economy and the market we're in and realized we needed to go under that."

Several breeders and bloodstock advisers said they found the colt more impressive than expected, and most attendees gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

"He's more of a European type of horse, in that he stands over a nice bit of ground and looks like he'd go two turns," observed English agent James Delahooke. "He's a clean-limbed horse that appears to have a lovely disposition. I'm pleasantly surprised."

Big Brown was auctioned for $60,000 as a yearling and $190,000 last year at 2.

"As an inexpensive yearling, I wondered what sort of an individual he was," Delahooke said. "But he's very correct and stands on a nice set of limbs."

A local breeder and agent agreed.

"In looks, he's not a dirt horse, which to me means he should be a sire for all surfaces," said the breeder and agent, who asked not to be identified. "He's got 'turfy,' slightly springy pasterns, he's very long from hip to hock, and he's sort of a narrow-framed horse who looks like a classic-distance horse."

Trainer Richard Dutrow Jr.'s use of steroids in Big Brown throughout most of his career was controversial during the Triple Crown races, but breeders Wednesday did not appear put off by that fact. Dutrow stopped the practice before the Belmont, and breeders generally said they did not perceive any ill effects from either the steroid use or its cessation. Big Brown's record of quarter cracks also did not seem a major issue.

"Obviously, you'd rather he not have had those problems," Delahooke said of Big Borwn's hoof trouble. "But it's becoming something we see more and more.

"But, like many things, with advances in veterinary science and farrier technology, we can't put that genie back in the bottle."

The overall positive impression was what Clay had hoped for when the farm planned the event.

"I've had people say to me today, 'My impression of him is a lot different of him today than it was yesterday,' " Clay said. "So we feel the more people see him for themselves, the better. The horse sells himself."

Asked what doubts people might have had to dispel, Clay said, "I think it was the unknown, the mystery that has surrounded the horse, the ownership, and the trainer, and the hype. Now they're focusing on the animal."