03/01/2017 4:00PM

Derby Watch: Brown looks to conquer new worlds with Practical Joke

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Debra A. Roma
Practical Joke, who makes his first start at 3 in the Fountain of Youth on Saturday, won two Grade 1 races last year, including the Hopeful (above).

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. – Chad Brown has won Breeders’ Cup races and trained Eclipse Award winners, he’s won Grade 1 races on both dirt and turf, he got his first Eclipse Award as champion trainer this year, and he’s got a deep, powerful stable that takes up several barns here at the Palm Meadows training center in south Florida.

What he doesn’t have, just yet, is a Triple Crown race win. His best shot this year likely is with Practical Joke, a two-time Grade 1 winner last year at age 2 who begins his 3-year-old campaign on Saturday in the Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

“Me and my team really want to win our first classic on the dirt with a colt, and we’re getting horses in the barn with that potential,” Brown said Wednesday at Palm Meadows. “Winning those races is very difficult. Every trainer will tell you that. We’re trying to get those ourselves.”

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Brown had a pair of starters in last year’s Kentucky Derby in longshots My Man Sam and Shagaf, but the closest he came to winning the race was in 2013, when Normandy Invasion finished fourth behind Orb.

“We felt he had a real good chance when they opened the gate,” Brown said. “It didn’t work out with the trip, but it was the first taste of having a real shot.”

Practical Joke seems to have that kind of potential. He won the first three starts of his career last year, including the Hopeful Stakes and the Champagne, then was third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The Breeders’ Cup was the first time Practical Joke went two turns. He’ll get another chance in the Fountain of Youth, which is the first of two preps Brown has slated for Practical Joke prior to the Derby on May 6 at Churchill Downs.

“He’s training well enough to win, but it’s important to get him to where he needs to go next,” Brown said. “You’re trying to get them to develop, to peak on the right day.”

The Fountain of Youth, at 1 1/16 miles, was expected to lure 11 runners, including Irish War Cry and Gunnevera, the one-two finishers from last month’s Holy Bull Stakes, and Swale Stakes runner-up Three Rules. They will have recent experience over Practical Joke, but Practical Joke obviously runs well fresh, having won first time out.

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Brown said he has been happy with the way Practical Joke has progressed this winter here.

“He’s always been an outstanding-looking horse,” said Brown, who trains Practical Joke – a son of Into Mischief – for Seth Klarman’s Klaravich Stables and William Lawrence. “Some don’t change from 2 to 3, but I like what I’ve seen of his progression in terms of how he’s grown, improving mentally, how he’s trained, how he’s worked. He hasn’t run, but he’s been doing all the things you like to see.”

Owing to a résumé both growing and glittering, expectations always are high now for anything trained by Brown, and he puts plenty of pressure on himself to mine more diamonds. For perspective, though, consider that Brown is just 38 and has been training on his own for less than a decade. He’s come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, with his experience as an assistant with Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel obviously proving invaluable.

Brown has had his greatest accomplishments with grass runners, including last year’s champion turf male, Flintshire. He’s already won the Manhattan four times and owns three wins apiece in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.

The turf-centric nature of his wins largely was because he seemed to be sent grass horses, owing to his first major winners being on turf, including Maram, who won the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. It was a self-perpetuating cycle. Now that Brown has won the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint with Wavell Avenue and the Cigar Mile with Connect, more horses who seem better suited to dirt are being sent his way, too.

Brown trains for clients who breed to race and others who buy at auction. That hasn’t changed. The types of horses arriving in his barn, and the clientele for whom he trains, has widened.

“We’ve caught the eye of clients who are giving us an opportunity with promising dirt colts,” he said. “We’ve had extraordinary success on the turf, not only in terms of prestigious races but the prize money and the resale value. We hope to continue that success, but we’re looking to expand that success on dirt. Practical Joke and Connect are two future stallions. I’d like to think that’s just the beginning.”