05/04/2016 8:16AM

Kentucky Derby: Brown looks for green beyond the turf

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Chad Brown has two starters for this year's Kentucky Derby - Shagaf and My Man Sam.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Chad Brown doesn’t mind having a reputation as a turf trainer. But he doesn’t want to be known as just a turf trainer.

Yes, 85 of his 106 graded stakes victories and 138 of his 203 total stakes wins have come on turf. But his overall win percentage on dirt (24.3 percent) is on par with that on turf (25.3 percent) from 800 fewer starters.

“When given the opportunity, we can perform with those types of horses,” said Brown, 37, who began training on his own late in 2007. “It’s taken some time, but I was always very confident that the opportunities would come. We’re getting more horses all the time, and with that, just by the law of averages, some of them have to be dirt horses, so you’re going to have the opportunities. If you make the most of them – which we have – we’ve shown we can get the most out of these dirt horses.”

This year bears that out. Brown is at Churchill Downs this week with two contenders – Shagaf and My Man Sam – for the $2 million Kentucky Derby and Lewis Bay for Friday’s $1 million Kentucky Oaks. Additionally, Brown will be running Wavell Avenue, who gave the trainer just his second Grade 1 dirt victory in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, in Saturday’s Grade 1 Humana Distaff.

Shagaf and My Man Sam are two horses Brown and his staff – led by assistants Cherie DeVaux, Jorge Abreu, and Jose Hernandez – have developed from the ground floor. Shagaf, a son of Bernardini owned and bred by Sheikh Hamdan’s Shadwell Stable, won his first three starts – including the Grade 3 Gotham – before finishing a disappointing fifth in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial run over a muddy track.

My Man Sam, a son of Trappe Shot owned by a partnership led by Sol Kumin’s Sheep Pond Partners, is only 1 for 4, but he is coming off a solid second in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes, in which he had to overcome the outside post in a 14-horse field. He was a late nominee to the Triple Crown after an eight-length maiden win and a solid second in an allowance race, both over Aqueduct’s inner track.

Both horses didn’t get to the races until late in their 2-year-old season, in part due to Brown’s training philosophy, which he developed while working for Hall of Fame trainers Shug McGaughey and Bobby Frankel.

“I worked for two people that weren’t in a hurry with the horses, and on top of that, as a student of the game, it hasn’t been proven to me that getting them started early – especially horses that are well meant to stretch out, well meant to be stakes horses beyond their 2-year-old year on turf or dirt – has proven to work for the longevity of the horse,” Brown said.

Brown said he doesn’t purposely hold his 2-year-olds back from the races if they show they’re precocious.

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“I’m putting the horses in the situation to get there on their own, and if they don’t, I wait,” Brown said.

My Man Sam is an example of that. Brown did not feel that the horse was mentally prepared to run early in his 2-year-old year, so he had the horse spend last summer at Belmont Park while racing was being conducted at Saratoga. Later, when it was time to pick which horses would be based in south Florida for the winter and which ones would be in New York, My Man Sam stayed back.

“Did we think he’s a claiming horse? No, or I would have run him for a claiming price first time out. Did we think he’s a Derby horse? No, or I would have brought him to Florida right away,” Brown said. “But these horses develop, and as proven year after year in my operation, having horses winter in New York annually has yielded me Grade 1 horses.”

Wavell Avenue spent the winter of 2014-15 in New York. Zivo and Last Gunfighter, both graded stakes winners who earned more than $1 million on dirt, also started their path to success over Aqueduct’s inner track.

My Man Sam was bought as a turf prospect, according to Brown and Kumin. Brown trained My Man Sam on turf but didn’t think that would be his preferred surface.

Shagaf came to Brown last July. He was ready to run in September but got sick, delaying his debut until November. He won his debut going a mile at Aqueduct by six lengths, got sick again, and then won an allowance at Gulfstream in January before taking the Gotham in March.

Shagaf was disappointing in the Wood Memorial, a race run over a wet track, but what Brown has seen since from the horse has him expecting a turnaround Saturday.

“To me, the horse is training better than ever,” Brown said in his tack room at Churchill Downs. “His two works here have been outstanding. I always thought this horse was special. This horse trained like a very rare dirt horse that doesn’t always walk into our barn or anyone’s barn.”

Brown is in his fourth year training for Shadwell, which also has horses with Kiaran McLaughlin, including fellow Kentucky Derby starter Mohaymen.

“We just needed an additional trainer, our stable had gotten quite large, and we wanted to bring in somebody new,” said Rick Nichols, vice president and general manager for Shadwell. “That he was a proven turf trainer was a plus, but we didn’t feel he was only a turf trainer. He’s a good trainer, period.”

This is not Brown’s first time to the Derby. As an assistant to Frankel, he was around in 2003 when Empire Maker and Peace Rules ran second and third to Funny Cide. Frankel also ran High Limit and Master David in the Derby when Brown worked for him.

In 2013, Brown ran his first Derby starter, Normandy Invasion, who finished fourth after making the lead at the top of the stretch.

“I think I learned a lot from that experience that I am putting to use this time around,” Brown said. “Not to say I would have done too many things different with Normandy, but just knowing what to expect with the whole process of getting here.”

Kumin, the head of Sheep Pond Partners and a co-owner of Kentucky Derby candidate Exaggerator with another group, believes Brown will be a regular participant in the Kentucky Derby moving forward.

“I would put my money that in the next five to 10 years, you’re going to see him like this every year,” Kumin said. “He’s focused more on the dirt, he learned a lot, has gotten to be a better dirt trainer. I think he’s getting a lot more ammo on the dirt. I think if you look over the next two, three, four, five years, he will become one of the best dirt trainers in the country.”