Friday, March 7, 2008
Durability a question mark for latest phenom, Big Brown
By Randy Moss
Special to ESPN.com
Insiders are abuzz -- for good reason -- about the Wednesday performance by 3-year-old Big Brown at Gulfstream Park.
In his second lifetime start, Big Brown took a one-mile allowance race by 12 3/4 lengths with a Beyer Speed Figure of 104. He also looked to be coasting through the lane under no encouragement from Kent Desormeaux (although we have seen a thousand times that good horses are good because they try hard whether the little guys on their backs are wailing away or posing for the crowd.)
Looking at video of that race, the sky appears to be the limit for the Rick Dutrow-trained colt, who won his only other start by 11 1/4 lengths on grass last summer at Saratoga.
But Big Brown's big shortcoming -- other than inexperience -- shows in his pedigree.
His sire, Boundary, did not race until April of his 3-year-old season. He was brilliant in his first two starts, then went back on the shelf the rest of the year. When Boundary made it back in January 2004, he reeled off three more wins in succession. Boundary ran six times in all as a 4-year-old, outrunning ultimate Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Cherokee Run in the A Phenomenon Stakes at Saratoga in August before the injury bug surfaced again and sent him to the stud barn.
Boundary came by his infirmaries honestly. Boundary is by the late Danzig, who managed only three starts and three runaway victories in 1979 and 1980 before he broke down and was retired. He is out of the mare Edge, who was fast enough to win the El Encino but made only a grand total of 10 starts at ages 2, 3 and 4 two decades ago when horses ran more frequently than they do today.
And don't look to the female side of Big Brown's pedigree for physical inspiration.
Big Brown's dam, Mien, finally raced in September of her 3-year-old season. After two races and a maiden win at Pimlico, she was done for good. Mien was a daughter of the great sire Nureyev, who had to be retired after just three starts on the track.
See a pattern here?
Big Brown is the latest in a long line of horses bred for extreme talent with scarce attention paid to durability. The emphasis -- especially for horses designed to be sold at public auction -- apparently is to breed/purchase racehorses with genetic capabilities to win the Kentucky Derby even if soundness has to be sacrificed. After all, in today's stallion market, even an unsound championship-caliber 3-year-old can be worth tens of millions of dollars -- if their careers are managed judiciously with well-spaced races and use of all permitted medications, and, of course, with a healthy dose of sheer luck.
Therefore, the conundrum for equine capitalists on both sides of the fence has become: why breed or buy yearlings bred more for durability than brilliance, if their pedigrees suggest they may only be talented enough to reach the Grade 2 or Grade 3 level? Owning racehorses is an expensive proposition and a gamble in every sense of the word, so why approach it with a buying strategy that reduces the possibility of a life-changing grand-slam home run, such as Rick Porter hit last year with Hard Spun? In a sense, this philosophy comes into play in other sports as well. NFL teams clearly are more likely to draft a college player with all-world talent but a strong lack of character than a straight-laced overachiever who doesn't stand as tall, run as fast or jump as high.
Admittedly, this is a generalization of a complex issue. In a perfect world, breeders and buyers would always prefer both extreme talent and soundness.
But in my opinion, the basic premise holds true. Nowadays, potential talent is king, while potential durability is nothing but a lowly servant.
In this instance, Dutrow says Big Brown has already battled two quarter cracks in his brief career, and it can be surmised that he started on grass last summer because that surface would be easier on his brittle feet. Clearly, Big Brown is a phenomenally talented colt, but he may have too much in common with Badge of Silver, another shooting star on the Derby radar screen several years back with colossal talent but whose legs were too fragile to get him to the promised land.
Randy Moss has been an analyst for ESPN/ABC Sports thoroughbred racing coverage since 1999.