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Trust your head, not heart
After Big Brown's mind-numbing, astonishingly weak effort in the Belmont Stakes, it would be easy to chalk his first career defeat to just one of those days.
If we step back to objectively examine details that were staring us in the face, we just might learn valuable handicapping lessons. Lessons that I thought I had learned many years ago.
* No matter how dominating a horse may look in a key prep race, or in a previous Triple Crown race, the ultra competitive spring classics provide no tolerance for any interruption of training.
* When a handicapper, professional or otherwise, begins to root for a Triple Crown winner, that is a weak perspective to carry into a fair evaluation of a Triple Crown race. Falling in love with a racehorse, even a potentially great racehorse, is an easy way to lose one's objectivity along with a whole lot of money.
From what I saw in the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness Stakes. Big Brown looked to be a superior talent on the verge of greatness. He flashed plenty of early speed from the difficult post 12 to take control of the Florida Derby. His Kentucky Derby triumph from post 20 while racing four and five wide on both turns was flawless form.
The Preakness gave more positive hints to Big Brown's superb disposition and unusual agility, escaping as he did from a trap on the Pimlico backstretch and accelerating sharply on command in the upper stretch.
After the Preakness, I believed Rick Dutrow's brash assessment that the colt had very little to worry about (other than Casino Drive), to complete his Triple Crown in the Belmont.
In fact, I disagreed strongly with the published views of some respected handicappers, most notably Andy Beyer, James Quinn, Steve Crist, and Mike Watchmaker, who put up the caution flag: Let's wait a minute, they essentially said, Let's see this horse do this and do that, before we proclaim him a truly great horse.
They were all correct to slow the hype down a peg. Yet, in the aftermath of Big Brown's defeat, I think we all learned something else: Because Big Brown could not complete the Triple Crown despite a significant margin for error, even after Casino Drive was judiciously scratched Saturday morning due to injury, it should be clear - now and forever - that winning the Triple Crown all by itself virtually qualifies any horse to be regarded among the greats of the game.
Consider that Big Brown was so much the best of this group, yet could not even produce a representative race in the Belmont. Consider how many very good horses failed to complete the sweep in the final strides of this ultimate climax to such a difficult five-week test.
Big Brown may have seemed physically fine for the Test of the Champion and he reportedly did pass various post-race exams, but he ran as if he was not fit enough for the task.
The extreme heat of a muggy New York day may have added to the stress on his conditioning, which was compromised by the hoof injury that limited his usual exercise. The hoof itself probably was perfect, but the training was not.
Big Brown had several days of inactivity, and several other days in which he could only jog or lightly gallop around the track while the quarter crack was mending. With the Derby and Preakness behind him, Dutrow was intending only a six-furlong workout with an extended gallop for Saturday, May 29 or Sunday, May 30. But the injury forced him to limit Big Brown to a mere five furlongs only four days out.
For five weeks, Big Brown's training consisted of easy jogs and moderately paced gallops plus a single two-furlong blowout on the morning of the Preakness, May 17, and a five-furlong work on June 3. No Triple Crown winner, or horse shooting for the Triple Crown, in my lifetime has had such a light program.
Exercise rider Michelle Nevin gave hints to the unfortunate deficiency in this program when she said after the 1:00.03 five-furlong workout on June 3 that Big Brown was "hard to handle". . "so full of himself," . . . (with the injury keeping him in the barn), "he needed to get his work in."
Indeed. The usually calm Big Brown acted like a wild horse with too much pent up energy when Nevin brought him to the special New York Racing Association security barn Saturday about six hours before the race. While he did calm down when out of camera range, Big Brown's intemperate behavior was the first negative hint that would play out during the actual race.
When Big Brown came out on the track for the post parade another disconcerting clue came into view.
Big Brown was virtually bone dry, not sweating at all until he completed all his warm-ups. He sweated so little in comparison to the other Belmont horses that it raised a red flag: No sweat on a hot, humid day? No sweat when almost every other horse throughout the day was sweating profusely?
Caton Bredar, an experienced horsewoman working on horseback for ABC, commented how "cool and calm" he seemed in the heat and humidity that was affecting all the others in the field. That may have been a positive sign to some, but it reminded me of several top-notch boxers who entered the ring completely dry - obviously dehydrated - before they got flattened in the first round.
Seconds into the actual race, Big Brown displayed more of his uncharacteristic, pent up energy. He was rank, difficult to control under extreme restraint during the run to the first turn, and then anxiously ran up on Da' Tara's heels.
This was the first time Desormeaux ever experienced an erratic response from Big Brown. Desormeaux frequently cited Big Brown as "the most intelligent, most responsive horse I've ever been on" . . . But not on this day.
To avoid an early collision, Desormeaux yanked Big Brown back and angled him out sharply to bump into Anak Nakal while securing some running room. It was not Desormeaux's finest moment on horseback, but about six furlongs later - after stalking Da' Tara and Tale of Ekati through moderate fractions - Desormeaux asked Big Brown for his patented explosive run and the jockey instantly knew the game was over.
"I had no horse," Desormeaux said succinctly.
As this was unfolding, I knew I had bought into Rick Dutrow's Kool Aid. The horse is "perfect" he had stated boldly. "I saw the horse," he added. "That's my reason to believe that; he's going to win the Belmont, he's the simply the best horse. . . . by a lot."
My mistake. Along with many fans who waited 30 years to see a top horse end the Triple Crown drought, I downplayed the importance of the colt's limited training. I ignored the clues despite having seen undefeated Majestic Prince lose his 1969 Triple Crown bid to Arts and Letters because of physical issues. I even saw Canonero II suffer through hives during Belmont Week in 1971, an affliction that also contributed to the sixth-place finish by Sunny's Halo in the 1983 Preakness. More recently, Unbridled's Song and Empire Maker were hampered in the 1996 and 2003 Kentucky Derbies because their hoof issues cost them valuable training time.
While none of this could have led many players to Da Tara's wire-to-wire win in the 12-furlong Belmont, we should realize by now that the Belmont distance itself can produce some remarkable one-hit wonders: Commendable in 2000; Sarava in 2002; Jazil in 2006, and now Da' Tara in 2008. That said, no one will need to remind me in 2009 that it is foolish to support any seemingly superior horse who has had to skirt around a physical issue leading up to this or any other classic race.