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Hovdey: Frankel prepared pupil Chad Brown well
By Jay Hovdey
There is really no way to practice training a horse to run in the Belmont Stakes other than actually running a horse in the Belmont Stakes, which is why Chad Brown, at the ripe old age of 33, will be glad to at least get the ball rolling on Saturday in the 144th running of America’s oldest classic.
Brown will send out Street Life, a dark brown, distance-loving colt flying quietly beneath the radar aimed overwhelmingly upon the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, I’ll Have Another. When the dust settles, it is likely Brown will be able to say without fear of contradiction that more people watched him make his Belmont Stakes debut than any other race in which he has taken part. What they will see remains up in the air.
If nothing else, Brown hopes it will be Street Life making his long, steady run at whomever is leading the pack into and through the Belmont stretch, just as the colt has done with good effect in three of his five lifetime starts, all this year. The last time Street Life crossed the line first came in the Broad Brush Stakes at Gulfstream Park in March. Since then the colt has tried the Wood Memorial (sixth to Gemologist) and the Peter Pan (third to Mark Valeski).
“There’s some nice horses in the race, and he still has to prove he can run the kind of numbers they can run,” Brown said. “But this is his home track, and I see a horse on the improve.”
Brown was standing a few yards away from Street Life getting a bath behind Belmont’s Barn 2 – better known this week as the Triple Crown Detention Barn, the NYSRWBarn, or simply Stalag Zwei – where all Belmont Stakes starters had to report by noon on Wednesday and stay there, when not on work release, until Saturday afternoon.
Brown got Street Life checked in early Wednesday and conceded that it being Barn 2 was not a problem. It was Bobby Frankel’s barn, where Empire Maker lived when he defeated Funny Cide in the 2003 Belmont Stakes, thus snuffing one of the 11 Triple Crown attempts since Affirmed turned the trick in 1978.
Empire Maker’s Belmont was the only Triple Crown race won by Frankel in a career that embraced just about every other noteworthy stat. At the time, Brown had been working for Frankel’s far-flung operation about a year. When the ‘03 Belmont was run, he was with the Frankel horses at Saratoga.
“I watched Bobby closely with that horse and talked with him a lot,” Brown said. “Bobby had a very steady approach to horses. He didn’t really change much, but when he did he made it from the gut.”
Brown left the Frankel nest in late 2007 and a year later won a Breeders’ Cup race – the Juvenile Fillies Turf – at Santa Anita Park with Maram (that’s “maram” spelled backwards). He was 29, which did not make him the youngest trainer to win a Breeders’ Cup race, but close. Frankel died in November 2009, after a year-long battle with cancer.
“It feels like I’ve been doing this a long time,” Brown said. “Just four years, I know, but you tack on the time I spent with Bobby and it’s like a decade. When you’re working for Bobby, being in charge of that quality of horses, it’s a pressure job. Fun, but pressure.”
During his apprenticeship, Brown also worked with assistant trainer Humberto Ascanio at the California branch of the Frankel stable. In 2007, Frankel trusted Brown with the job of getting Ginger Punch to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Monmouth Park, which she won in a thriller with Hystericalady.
“Bobby prepared me very well,” said Brown, who trained champion turf mare Stacelita last year. “I don’t know if that was his intention every morning, but passively he did. There was also the grouchiness, ignoring you for days on end. You had to have thick skin. But if you hung in there he’d circle back your way. He had a good heart.”
Few American horsemen have been as large in both life and death as Frankel – Woody Stephens, Charlie Whittingham, Hirsch Jacobs, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons to name a few of the few – and like most of the Frankel inner circle, Brown both survived and cherished the time spent in the eye of the Frankel hurricane.
“I can’t hear myself telling an owner to come pick up his horses, or telling them to stop calling every week,” Brown said. “But that was Bobby, and he had a group of owners who absolutely loved him the way he was. He deserved them, though. He’d been doing it a long time.”
As a graduate of Frankel University (FU for short), Brown does the obligatory, dead-on Bobby impression – that nasal, put-upon Brooklyn whine – and deploys for maximum effect. He was asked how Frankel would handle a training business now requiring time spent communicating with owners in the various modern electronic forms.
“Texting?” Brown said. “Wouldn’t go down. Skype? ‘Leave me the f--- alone. Ruben, how do I turn this thing off?’” Dead on.
“He told me when he hired me,” Brown said, “and I remember it word-for-word, ‘Look, if I trained horses today like I did in the ‘70s I’d never win.’ He was always changing with the times, and he was a master of observation.”
Street Life, his bath finished, looked pretty good in his own right, maybe even as a live longshot to ruffle the feathers of I’ll Have Another as the Belmont runners all go 1 1/2 miles for the first time.
“One thing I’m not worried about is distance,” Brown said. “He’s not a big horse, but he’s obviously bred stoutly to run long on dirt. All the body language he gives me and the manner in which he does it tells me I haven’t got to the bottom of him yet.”
In the 70's at Santa Anita I would see Frankel throw fit after fit. Those who were around him after a race had guts because he scared the hell outta me. I never had much respect for him as a Trainer in the early years because he was the first one I ever saw that would drop a horse in half, sometimes off a claim and off a win. It seemed like he won half the races and the other half his horses would be pulled up on the turn (and Pincay had some guts riding them). All were about 3-5 so you couldn't bet him. No one I knew could figure out when he would win or pull-up so we just didn't play the races he was entered in. Back then I would of never thought he would of turned out to be the great Trainer he was. In the later years when everyone else would transform their overseas Turf horses to the style of So-Cal racing it seemed that Frankel wouldn't change their style and they would come home with that big move in the stretch. Frankel along with Whittingham, Shoemaker and others it's hard to believe they are gone, it seems like just yesterday....
Street Life, imo, after a dissappointing - but not really unexpected - dud in the wood memorial, fell off may people's radar. The dud in the wood was not a surprise given the colt's lack of professionalism up to that point, remembering that he'd had only a few starts prior. His 3rd-place, closing try in the peter Pan is not likely to awaken those wise guys who hyped his chances prior to the wood. However, maybe that's a good sign. Because as much as Street Life was unprepared to face the rigors of tougher, more professional foes in the Wood, the Peter Pan may have set him up for a top effort in the Belmont Stakes. Clearly, Chad Brown was using the Peter Pan to further school the lightly-raced colt; the instructions were simple: get him out clean, relax him for 2 furlongs and come with a run that includes switching to his right lead on cue turning into the stretch in order to maintain all positive momentum. Quietly and without a lot of fanfare, Street Life took a giant step forward in becoming a racing professional, who switches leads on cue, who gets into the bit when asked...the colt's promising work a few days ago seemed to demonstrate a professionalism not before seen. It would not, therefore, be surprising to see Street Life take a major leap forward in the Belmont Stakes. This time without the wise guys.
Chad Brown's current forte is grass -where he displays remarkable prowess - but if Street Life finishes itm, much less win, it will serve as a statement that he is truly arriving among the top tier elite trainers. His strong suit is knowing where to place his runners. He knows exactly how he wants his steeds to run and demands perfection from his riders, demanding that they follow his instructions to a tee. He is not afraid to criticize them after a loss, if they screwed up. Horses mature and develop at a much more rapid pace than humans. Street Life will most likely blossom in the fall and may be looking at a breakout 4yo campaign. All the stars will have to be aligned and the big boppers to melt down for this colt to win the Belmont Stakes, but a Place spot and esp., a Show finish might be the ideal way to flesh out what might otherwise be a low paying triple. Street Life is the true value play for the underneath in the Belmont.....IHA, UR and Dullahan will all be underlays. Kindly note that Jose Lezcano was the lucky charm for Brown when he began his career so resoundingly.......back to the future. Longshots have been known to win this stakes race. Nothing is impossible.
Bobby was SIMPLY the best trainer in the past 100 years. He was on top with the claimers or with top class Horses. Most trainer's can't do that.The SUPER Trainer's of today are nothing but "MEDICINE MEN" the one with the best chemist is always on fire...Sad if you think about it...Managment should hand out with each paid admission a DRUG chart to find out what Trainer is using what DRUG today, and which Jockey is HIGH or Drunk. And they have the NERVE to WONDER why this once Great game continues it's DECLINE...
Super article. That quote from Frankel, ‘Look, if I trained horses today like I did in the ‘70s I’d never win.’ seems more telling than just a mrere quip
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