02/21/2013 3:49PM

Risen Star: Normandy Invasion could be Brown's first Kentucky Derby horse

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Barbara D. Livingston
Chad Brown has won two Breeders’ Cup races and trained two Eclipse winners. Normandy Invasion, who runs in Saturday’s Risen Star, could be his first Derby horse.

NEW ORLEANS – Chad Brown has skipped several rungs trainers traditionally climb on their way to the top. He won with his first Breeders’ Cup starter, Maram. The first Eclipse Award finalist he trained, Stacelita, was named champion turf female of 2011. Zagora won the same award for her 2012 campaign. Just 35 and with barely four years as a head trainer, Brown has not so much climbed a career ladder as sprinted it two steps at a time.

Saturday in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, Brown starts down his first Triple Crown trail. His horse for the race, Normandy Invasion, is the first elite early season 3-year-old Brown has had under his care. His stable already has grown large and powerful, but unlike the Pletchers and Bafferts of the world, Brown has no apparent understudies to Normandy Invasion. So far, Brown has been the quickest of studies. Normandy Invasion might be the only horse he needs to make his first Kentucky Derby.

Normandy Invasion, a colt by Tapit, finished an even fifth Sept. 12 in his career debut, a Belmont sprint, on Sept. 12, but he came out firing two months later, winning a one-turn-mile maiden race at Aqueduct by more than nine lengths. In the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes on Nov. 24, Normandy Invasion broke from post 10, a difficult outside spot, and quickly was taken back and to the inside by jockey Jose Lezcano. Eighth of nine approaching the race’s second turn, he began a rally about a half-mile out and sustained it nearly all the way to the wire. Yards from victory, he lost momentum, and Overanalyze, whom Normandy Invasion had passed moments before, came back to win by a nose.

[RISEN STAR: Get PPs, watch Fair Grounds video handicapping previews]

“We had a very difficult post that day, and it probably cost us the race,” Brown said. “You can either send him out of there or tuck in and make one run. It wasn’t a great first half of the race for him, but the second half was very good. You don’t see too many 2-year-olds make a half-mile run like that on dirt. I think it kind of took the starch out of him late.”

Normandy Invasion will have been in Florida for the better part of three months upon his departure for New Orleans.

“We freshened him up a month, and he’s been training really well,” Brown said. “He’s never carried a lot of weight, but he’s taller now, stretchier. He’s got a beautiful frame and a wonderful way of going. I think those long legs are going to serve him well going forward.”

Brown thinks, but he does not know for sure. The experience of watching one of the more promising members of a 2-year-old crop grow and change through the winter, and trying to translate gallops and workouts and all the minute equine responses to daily demands − all that has not passed through Chad Brown’s brain many times. Working for Shug McGaughey and, up to the point he became a head trainer, Bobby Frankel, Brown got close to any number of top-class racehorses. Frankel, a Hall of Famer, never won the Derby, though he ran third with the 2003 favorite, Empire Maker, the Remsen runner-up the fall before. Frankel’s operation centered on older runners, especially turf horses, and particularly females – much like Brown’s has to this point. But Brown has never seemed short on confidence. He has conquered the unknown before. He feels can do so again.

“I’ve only had four crops of 2-year-olds since I’ve been on my own,” Brown said. “I feel like I have a résumé that shows I know how to develop horses, whether they’re turf horses or dirt horses. Dirt, turf, long, short − the better trainers figure out how to work with each horse individually rather than work with just one program.”

Normandy Invasion’s owner, Rick Porter, is the one with Triple Crown experience: Almost every season he has some sort of prospect for the Derby, which Porter nearly won with Eight Belles in 2008. Porter, who races under the nom de course Fox Hill Farms, began placing horses with Brown about 1 1/2 years ago. Brown trains eight for him now.

Porter bought Normandy Invasion for $230,000 at Keeneland’s April sale of 2-year-olds in 2012. Normandy Invasion, who is out of the Boston Harbor mare Boston Lady, breezed a quarter-mile in 21 seconds at the sale, and his purchase price was based primarily upon his work time and racy appearance. Tapit has turned out to be a fine sire, but Normandy Invasion’s female family is light on quality. Of his dam’s five foals to race, only one horse besides Normandy Invasion won. His dam, Boston Lady, failed to win in a five-start career, and though Normandy Invasion has banked a modest $92,240 in prize money, he is the highest earner among 17 runners in his family going back three generations.

The pedigree tale alone will not doom Normandy Invasion; individuals with freakish talent coming from no discernible genetic origin pop up regularly. But there are other reasons to temper expectations going into the Risen Star. The colt, after all, has won only one race, and while that victory was convincing, there appears to have been little behind him that day at Aqueduct. His competition has since made eight starts, with no wins, one second, one third, and five off-the-board finishes.
Normandy Invasion’s debut came in a better race, though he wasn’t a major factor after starting slowly and rushing into a solid pace. Three horses from that race have come back to win, the best of them being Mudflats.

The jury still is out on the 2012 Remsen, too. The two horses nearest Normandy Invasion, Overanalyze and third-place Delhomme, have yet to start since the Remsen, but other runners have made five starts, with four finishing off the board and one running third. Moreover, the Remsen, in recent history, has hardly been a hotbed of future Kentucky Derby players. Mucho Macho Man was second in the Remsen and third in the 2011 Derby. Bluegrass Cat won the 2005 Remsen and finished second in the Derby. But Empire Maker was the only other Remsen runner in the last 10 years to earn a top-three Derby placing, and during that decade, the 14 Remsen graduates to race in the Derby had an average finishing position of 11th.

That flood of stats is nothing Chad Brown can control, and until we see the best 2012 Remsen runners in action this year it’s wise to let the past be the past. Normandy Invasion has been working steadily since Jan. 13, breezing with apparent aplomb at the Palm Meadows training center. His recent works have been fast, and Normandy Invasion does not have the luxury of an easy comeback race if he is to have a decent chance at making the 20-horse Derby. The Remsen second earned him four Derby qualifying points, tying him with eight other horses at 19th in the points standings.

Brown has started only one horse at Fair Grounds, but he knows the stretch here is long, that the generally unbiased main track should give Normandy Invasion a fair chance to earn precious Derby qualifying points Saturday. The field is not easy, but Brown, despite his lack of experience in such matters, might have made a wise move on his first Derby trail.

“I try to watch and I learn and I pick up things,” he said. “If I have the right type of horse, I feel confident I’ll know what to do.”