Friday, May 16, 2008
Quick turnaround a Preakness story line for Big Brown
By Pat Forde ESPN.com
BALTIMORE -- Most people here believe the only thing separating Kentucky Derby champion Big Brown from a Preakness walkover is the rigor of running twice in two weeks. His trainer, Rick Dutrow, leads the pack.
"He looks like he's going to run his race, but two weeks is a question mark," Dutrow said Friday at rainy Pimlico Race Course. "I don't see it as a question mark to where he'll get beat, but I just can't feel as confident as I did for the Derby."
Which tells us a lot about the rickety state of modern thoroughbreds. They literally don't make 'em like they used to.
In the 20th century, the spacing of the Triple Crown races was never an issue. The Kentucky Derby is run on the first Saturday in May, the Preakness two weeks later and the Belmont three weeks after that, and nobody said much about it.
Now it's viewed as almost an anachronistic death march.
Nack: DNA of a breakdown
The real shame in Eight Belles' breakdown in the Kentucky Derby? Close watchers of bloodlines in thoroughbred breeding could have seen it coming.
Today, asking a big-time 3-year-old to run twice in two weeks is like asking a starting pitcher to throw both games of a doubleheader. They have a lot in common, pitchers and horses. Neither has anywhere near the stamina they once did.
Three races in five weeks is hard to do, and very hard to win. But it was hardly impossible back in the day. We've had 11 Triple Crown winners and many, many horses that have contested all three legs.
These days, they're just hoping for any horse to run the gauntlet.
Two weeks between races was a downright luxury for a horse like Conquistador Cielo, who won the Metropolitan Mile and the Belmont Stakes for Woody Stephens in the same week. That wasn't the 1800s, either. It was 1982.
A decade before that, Secretariat raced three times in the month of July as a 2-year-old, and nine times altogether at 2. Only two horses in this Preakness field -- Hey Byrn and Riley Tucker -- had even begun their racing careers last July. And none in this field raced more than four times at age 2.
In fact, none in this field has raced more than eight times in its career. This is a callow bunch, emblematic of the times.
American breeding has sapped the durability from its sire lines, replacing it with a premium on speed. Inbreeding has accentuated the infirmities passed along through the generations. And with the colossal money to be made in the breeding shed and sales rings, nobody's much interested in running their horses very often or for very long.
Will Big Brown be able to come back two weeks after his Kentucky Derby win to prevail in the Preakness?
Horses disappear from the track as soon as the public latches onto them, diminishing the star power this sport needs. Don't expect it to be any different with Big Brown.
A whopper breeding deal is expected to be announced any day for Big Brown -- he's potentially far more valuable at stud than he is on the track. So he's been handled with kid gloves, just like the rest of his generation.
The combination of factors leaves us with a Preakness that, outside of Big Brown, could more accurately be called the Bleakness. Most everybody has bailed on Baltimore.
The task of running in both the Derby and the Preakness was deemed so daunting that only two horses are trying it: Big Brown and Gayego. Big Brown is only doing it because, as the Derby winner, he's the only one with a shot at the Triple Crown. Dutrow has said he prefers to race roughly every 40 days.
And Gayego, who ran into all kinds of racing trouble in Louisville, is doing it for reasons that clearly escape Dutrow. If there is a method to the madness, it isn't obvious to Big Brown's trainer.
"I'm very surprised they'd fly that horse from Kentucky to California, put blinkers on him and fly him here," Dutrow said. "We'd pick a more reasonable spot. It doesn't disappoint me, but it surprises me."
The disappointments are the other Derby horses that didn't show up here. Clearly, the proposition of trying to beat Big Brown is an intimidating one -- but they are awarding $200,000 for second place. You'd think someone other than this mangy collection of contenders might show up to take a run at that -- if they're up to it physically.
Denis of Cork, the only living 3-year-old who came within nine lengths of Big Brown in the Derby, skipped the second leg. So did fourth-place Tale of Ekati. Fifth-place Recapturetheglory was aiming at the Preakness before coming down with a fever. Colonel John, the second choice in the Derby, isn't yet ready for his second career race on dirt.
Some of them might jump back into the fray for the Belmont, where Big Brown figures to be fighting fatigue and an ambush on his way to the Triple Crown. It isn't terribly sporting to sit out the middle leg and bring a fresher horse to the third leg, but it's a proven path to the winner's circle.
That's how Birdstone beat Smarty Jones to spoil his Triple Crown bid in 2004. Empire Maker did the same thing to Funny Cide in 2003. Run the Derby, skip the Preakness, be the fresher horse in the Belmont.
The hope of the challengers in the Pimlico stakes barn is that Big Brown isn't even strong and experienced enough to handle two legs of the Crown, much less three. They're hoping the lightly raced colt finally runs into some in-race adversity.
"He's not a horse that is at all battle tested," Racecar Rhapsody trainer Kenny McPeek said. "He's never had a lot of dirt kicked in his face, if any. ... There are no sure things.
"Horses lose these races all the time, and he's going to have a big target on his back. When they leave the gate, every jockey is going to be watching for him."
Odds are prohibitive that they'll all be watching Big Brown run away from them and disappear into the distance. If he can't, it could be the quick turnaround that does Big Brown in.
And then thoroughbred racing will have one more reason to ponder the star-sapping enterprise it's become.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.