09/09/2008 12:00AM

Trying a turf route to Classic


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Big Brown is going back to the beginning in hopes of crafting the perfect ending.

An eye-catching 11 1/4-length winner of a maiden turf race at Saratoga in his career debut one year ago, Big Brown gets the chance to return to that surface when he runs in Saturday's $500,000 Monmouth Stakes at Monmouth Park. Sure, Big Brown will always be remembered for winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness on dirt, but his connections truly believe he's a better turf horse.

With this year's Breeders' Cup Classic being run over a synthetic surface - which tends to favor turf horses more than dirt horses - the Monmouth Stakes provides the opportunity to prove Big Brown's turf prowess while getting in a useful prep for the $5 million Classic and a chance to lay claim to Horse of the Year.

"He's better on the grass. He always has been," said trainer Richard Dutrow Jr., shortly after Big Brown worked five furlongs in 1:05.35 Tuesday morning over Aqueduct's turf course. "He's always breezed better - we've said that all along. When he breezes on the dirt he runs down on all four [heels]. You've seen him this morning, he had no bandages on. That's a telling tale."

Tuesday's move was Big Brown's third consecutive breeze on the grass. While the time was nothing special, the work was done around three sets of traffic cones that forced exercise rider Michelle Nevin to keep Big Brown way out beyond the middle of the turf course, which was labeled good after heavy rains pelted the area Saturday.

With majority owner Michael Iavarone, jockey Kent Desormeaux, and Dutrow looking on from the backside of the turf course, Big Brown went in fractions of 12.58 seconds, 25.00, 40.14, 52.55 and galloped out six furlongs in 1:22.58.

"I think he has fun out there - he's very happy," Nevin said. "He definitely handles it like a pro. He's got a huge stride on it. He feels great out there - very comfortable, very smooth."

It was Big Brown's monster turf debut last year at Saratoga that caught the eye of many potential buyers, with Iavarone's International Equine Acquisitions Holdings Stable winning the bidding war. IEAH purchased 75 percent from Paul Pompa Jr., who stayed in for 25 percent. The purchase price was estimated to be around $3 million.

Though Iavarone told Dutrow "this is our Derby horse," the first objective for Big Brown was the Pilgrim Stakes on turf as a way to get to the inaugural Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. Foot problems scrapped those plans.

Big Brown was scheduled to run on turf at Gulfstream in his 3-year-old debut in March, but the race got rained off the turf. He won that first-level allowance race by 12 3/4 lengths on dirt, then the Florida Derby by five lengths before romping to easy victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

"Dutrow won the Derby with a grass horse," Desormeaux said. "He's definitely a grass horse. I think the racing gods played into our hands on Derby Day and Preakness Day, where it poured rain [the previous day] and left us with a wet-fast track, so it was something he could get a hold of. We're hopeful he's going to be doing what he enjoys - racing on the grass - which is very exciting heading into the Breeders' Cup."

Saturday's Monmouth Stakes is all about getting Big Brown ready for the Classic. Iavarone said that even a blowout win Saturday would not tempt him to run Big Brown in the $3 million BC Turf.

Dutrow said this race was chosen because it's six weeks out from the Classic, giving Big Brown time to get over a would-be huge effort while allowing Dutrow the necessary time to train the horse properly for the Classic.

"I love training them with plenty of time coming up to a big race," Dutrow said. "I understand a whole lot more when we get to do that."

The grass was also chosen because it's kinder on Big Brown physically. In addition to Big Brown running down when he works on dirt, the horse has been plagued by foot problems throughout his career. While he does not have any existing quarter cracks, his front feet are still sources of concern.

"It's not like every time you wake up in the morning, Big Brown is ready to roll," Dutrow said Tuesday afternoon during a national conference call. "He's had five or six quarter cracks since I had him."

Big Brown will not have a walkover Saturday. He will be running against much more seasoned opponents with much more impressive records on the turf. Shakis, Silver Tree, Kiss the Kid, Hotstufanthensome, and Proudinsky are all graded stakes winners on the turf. Trainer Dennis Manning is considering running either Victory Alleged or Ballonenostrikes.

Big Brown will become the first Kentucky Derby winner in his 3-year-old season to run on the grass after winning the Derby since Unbridled in 1990. Unbridled ran second in the Secretariat Stakes on turf in August of his 3-year-old season before coming back to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Unbridled remains the last Derby winner to capture the Classic.

Obviously, that's the goal for Big Brown.

"I'm just hoping our horse runs big Saturday and likes whatever course they have at Santa Anita," Dutrow said. "How can you be guaranteed that your horse is going to like it?"