07/28/2008 11:00PM

Lots to prove for Big Brown

Barbara Livingston
Big Brown's first loss came at the Belmont Stakes on June 7.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - The last time Big Brown raced, the Triple Crown was at stake. The next time he runs, the horse's reputation and that of his trainer, Richard Dutrow Jr., will be on the line.

At least that's the way Big Brown's connections feel entering Sunday's $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. The Haskell will be Big Brown's first start since he was pulled up by jockey Kent Desormeaux with a quarter-mile remaining in the Belmont Stakes on June 7. It was Big Brown's first loss.

Big Brown's performance in the Belmont will remain a mystery to Dutrow, as he still cannot come up with a plausible excuse for why Desormeaux pulled the horse up. Aside from the trip Big Brown got early in the race - where he was rank and steadied - Dutrow has not bought into any of the other theories that have been put forth, such as a light training schedule precipitated by a quarter crack in the colt's left front hoof, a dislodged hind shoe, or antics in Belmont Park's raceday security barn.

Rather than look back, Dutrow has been focused on the future and making sure the Big Brown who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness so impressively shows up Sunday.

"It means more to me than anyone else to have him run his race, because I'm in charge here, I'm supposed to know what is happening with this horse," Dutrow said Tuesday morning at his Aqueduct barn. "If he goes and [pulls up] again people are going to look at me like I'm a complete idiot."

"I think it's everything," owner Michael Iavarone said Tuesday when asked how important the Haskell is for Big Brown. "This race is as important as any race he's ever run in, including the Belmont Stakes. We need to reestablish his position amongst great horses. I think people are questioning that for him.

"To retire in the eyes of racing enthusiasts anything other than a great horse, I would be disappointed," Iavarone added. "Look at what he's accomplished in his career that most horses have never done. He's won on different surfaces, on different tracks from different post positions. In a very short period of time he went from a horse nobody knew about to a multi-classic champion."

Big Brown's rise to prominence began in a March 5 allowance race at Gulfstream Park. Bothered by foot problems early in the winter, Big Brown went into that race with only three workouts. Dutrow said he didn't know what to expect from Big Brown that day. He is in a similar position entering Sunday's Haskell.

"He's been training like he's ready to run," Dutrow said. "I don't see any kind of issues in any kind of way, but I didn't for the Belmont and he wound up pulling up in the Belmont. The only way of me knowing anything is watching him run."

Big Brown has been on a regular training schedule at Aqueduct since his Belmont debacle. Dutrow said he walked the horse for three days before sending him back to the track on June 11. Dutrow said Big Brown jogged until June 27, when he began galloping. Big Brown had his first breeze on July 2, when he went five furlongs in 1:06.71, and has worked weekly since, culminating with a six-furlong move in 1:10.96 on Saturday. Dutrow said he planned to blow Big Brown out three furlongs Friday at Aqueduct before he travels to Monmouth on Saturday.

"If he wasn't training good, you guys would know it, and we wouldn't be pointing towards the race," Dutrow said. "But he's been training really, really good. I'm happy with the way things are."

Since Saturday's breeze, Big Brown walked on Sunday, jogged on Monday, and galloped Tuesday without any front shoes. Dutrow said he often pulls front shoes off his horses for a couple of days, something he calls a safety measure.

Ian McKinlay, a specialist in horse's feet who has worked on Big Brown since last fall, said Big Brown has a tendency to "grow a little bit of an odd heel." When McKinlay removed Big Brown's shoes on Saturday, he trimmed some of the heel and said he was going to trim some more if need be when he re-shod the horse with glue-on shoes on Wednesday.

"When you trim them, if a heel gets a little jammed up, this lets everything settle down," McKinlay said Tuesday. "He really enjoys being barefoot. I don't think there's any difference in soundness. He went a couple of weeks barefoot."

During the Triple Crown, much was made about Dutrow's use of Winstrol, a steroid that is legal for use in several racing jurisdictions. Dutrow said the horse has not been given Winstrol since April 15.

Steroids and drugs in general have become a big topic when it comes to Dutrow and Iavarone. Last month, Dutrow was suspended for 15 days by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority for an overage of clenbuterol on a horse he ran the day before the Derby at Churchill Downs.

The day before the drug positive became public, Iavarone announced that beginning Oct. 1 all horses that his International Equine Acquisitions Holdings Inc. owned would run drug free, with the exception of Lasix. Though Iavarone did not own the Dutrow horse who came up positive, he was upset with Dutrow for not telling him and, with many of his investors upset, Iavarone nearly pulled his horses from Dutrow.

Dutrow said his relationship with Iavarone has not changed, but Iavarone has said that Dutrow is on a short leash when it comes to drugs.

"We can't afford any more mistakes in the media or mistakes with our racehorses," Iavarone said. "As long as Rick continues to be on the straight and narrow he'll have our support."

The field for the Haskell is not coming up particularly strong. On Tuesday, trainer Todd Pletcher said that Harlem Rocker would await the Travers. Also, it was disclosed that Hey Byrn suffered from a bout of colic over the weekend and will be forced to skip the race.

Thus, Big Brown's competition is shaping up to be Atoned, Cool Coal Man, Magical Forest, Nistle's Crunch, and Truth Rules.

"We certainly can't be afraid of the competition," Dutrow said. "We feel like he's just up against himself. If he runs his race we're going to be in good shape. If he runs like last time we're not going to be in good shape. It's very simple as far as I'm concerned."

Big Brown's future racing schedule is all contingent on what happens in the Haskell. Though Dutrow said he would love to run in the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 23, he also knows that running back in 20 days may not make the most sense for the horse. With the year-end objective being the Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 25 at Santa Anita, possible next races mentioned by Iavarone for Big Brown include the Pennsylvania Derby (Sept. 1), the Massachusetts Handicap (Sept. 20), or the Jockey Club Gold Cup or Goodwood Breeders' Cup (both Sept. 27).

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch