Triumph and tragedy
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When the muscular bay colt turned into the stretch at Churchill Downs Saturday, the 134th Kentucky Derby was all but over. Big Brown led by only a head with a quarter-mile to go, but he was accelerating like a sports car and his 19 opponents were running for second.
At the eighth pole, his margin was 2 lengths, and Kent Desormeaux gave him a few cracks with a right-handed whip. At the finish, he was 4 lengths ahead of the courageous but ill-fated filly Eight Belles. After galloping out past the wire and around the turn, Eight Belles fell, her front ankles shattered, and immediately had to be euthanized.
Denis of Cork rallied for third, 3 lengths behind the filly, and Tale of Ekati was fourth, 2 lengths farther back. The race’s biggest underachievers were second favorite Colonel John (sixth at 9-2) and Pyro (eighth at 5-1).
The tragic breakdown marred but did not diminish a dazzling performance by a potential Triple Crown winner. The undefeated colt, unraced and unknown until Labor Day last year, has brought star power to a 3-year-old crop that was badly in need of it.
“Talentwise, he’s the best horse I’ve ever ridden,” said Desormeaux, the 38-year-old Cajun Hall of Famer. Desormeaux won the Derby on Real Quiet in 1998 and on Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, but he already rates Big Brown as better. “He has stamina, and he has multiple gears. This is what only Derby winners can do. They can move you into a position, and then cruise, and then take you into another position and then cruise again. Every time I ask him to run, it’s like leaving the starting gate again.”
The victory was a triumph for two Derby first-timers, trainer Rick Dutrow and co-owner Michael Iavarone, 37, the Holbrook resident who bought Big Brown for IEAH Stables last September after watching him win his debut on Saratoga’s turf course by 11 lengths.
“It was just the way we envisioned things happening when we picked the 20 post,” Dutrow said. “We were guaranteed a good trip. Big Brown puts himself wherever you want him to be in the race, and Kent gave him a very good ride.”
Big Brown’s 3-for-3 record, with a combined margin of 29 lengths, made him the 2-1 favorite even though he was challenging two intimidating streaks. Not since 1929 had a Derby winner come from post 20, and not since 1915 had a horse won America’s Race in its fourth start. Eventually, all streaks must end, and Big Brown vaporized both of them.
In the winner’s circle, Iavarone first offered condolences to Eight Belles’ connections – trainer Larry Jones, jockey Gabriel Saez and owner Fox Hill Farms.
Minutes later, Iavarone spoke of uncertain moments when Big Brown was sixth, three or four paths wide, running down the backstretch. “I turned to Rick and said, ‘Is he too far back?’ And Rick said, ‘He’s perfect.’ I’ve got to go with what Rick says now. Rick’s word is God for me.”
Big Brown broke sharply from the extreme outside and Desormeaux gradually angled him over in the five-sixteenths of a mile cavalry charge to the first turn. He was four wide there but moving comfortably, and Desormeaux kept him outside, away from traffic trouble, in sixth along the backstretch. Bob Black Jack set a solid but reasonable pace, leading through a half-mile in 47.04 seconds and 6 furlongs in 1:11.14 before backing up to 16th.
“I had a beautiful, uneventful trip,” Desormeaux said. “No distractions, no alterations in course, just slide over. And he did it so within himself. He was in a gallop to the quarter pole.”
That’s where Big Brown kicked in, and approaching the eighth pole, it was no longer a question of who would win but by how much.
“You could see no one was going to catch him,” Dutrow said. “And we were going crazy.”
Big Brown ran 1 1/4 miles on a fast track in 2:01.82 and earned $1,451,800, raising his four-race total to more than $2.1 million. He’ll scare away a lot of horses from the Preakness Stakes on May 17 at Pimlico, which would be fine with Iavarone and Dutrow.
As Iavarone said, “We can’t wait to get to Baltimore.”