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Tuesday, August 5, 2008
'Big' concern?

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

Big Brown
Big Brown (right) struggled to win the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
While the Belmont Stakes will forever be remembered as the most disappointing loss of Big Brown's career, if I owned this horse or trained this horse I'd be a lot more concerned about what happened in the Haskell than what happened in the final leg of the Triple Crown.

Big Brown's performance in the Belmont Stakes was too bad to be true. When a horse of that caliber runs that poorly, something has to be amiss. It was possible to dismiss the Belmont as a fluke, draw a line through it and move on. After the horse had eight weeks off and plenty of time to regroup, there was every reason to believe that the Big Brown in the Haskell would be the same dominating, invincible monster that swept through the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

It didn't quite work out that way. A winner or not, Big Brown simply wasn't very good in the Haskell.

On the far turn, Kent Desormeaux was asking his horse for everything he had and he wasn't gaining an inch on Coal Play. He looked beaten, but finally put it together in deep stretch and spurted past Coal Play inside the final 70 yards or so to win by one-and-three-quarter lengths. He did so despite bearing out.

Though Big Brown showed some courage to win when it appeared he was beaten, he was life and death to defeat a very ordinary group of horses. Coal Play might have run the race of his life, but he looked like nothing more than a decent allowance horse coming into the Haskell. He had earned just $84,842 before the race, winning a maiden and a first-level allowance race from nine career starts. Big Brown is supposed to destroy a horse like that.

After the Haskell, several English bookmaking firms raised Big Brown's ante-post price for the Breeders' Cup Classic. Coral raised his price from 4-1 to 5-1.

Big Brown's desultory performance in the Haskell can mean a few things, none of them good. My guess is that Big Brown still hasn't overcome the toll the Triple Crown grind apparently took on him. With the way he ran in the Belmont, he looked like a horse that had been completely knocked out by the stress of the Triple Crown campaign. The eight weeks off between the Belmont and the Haskell apparently did him some good, but he still looked like a horse that was well off his game. If that's the case, he's not likely to round back into top form any time soon.

Another possibility is that a lot of people, myself included, got it wrong with Big Brown. With the way he won the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he seemed to be some sort of super horse. He didn't just win those races; he seemed to dominate the competition without even trying. But maybe that was a mirage. After all, his speed figures never were that good and the rest of the 3-year-old crop is about as unimpressive a group as anyone has ever seen.

So, what now? It remains to be seen where Big Brown goes next. There's been talk of a return to the grass or maybe a start in the MassCap up at Suffolk Downs. The Breeders' Cup Classic is supposed to be his final race.

Line him up against another modest group of 3-year-olds and he will probably win again. But put him in against Curlin or, even, a couple of other tough older horses, and he figures to have a very hard time. At least he does based on the way he ran in the Haskell.

There's still another scenario: retirement. Sorry to be so cynical, but doesn't that make the most sense? Everything that he does on the racetrack from here forward affects his stud value. Right now, he's in a pretty good spot. He somewhat put the Belmont disaster behind him and is coming off a Grade I win. He could go out now on a high.

But should he get beaten in any of his next few starts, which is a strong possibility, he's going to head off to stud with a tarnished reputation and a deflated price tag. Is it worth taking the chance? Maybe not.

Big Brown has taken the sport on a strange ride. It's been exhilarating and it's been disappointing. In a way, the latest chapter, the Haskell, was the most confusing. He had been brilliant and he had been awful. Now, he was merely pretty good.

What does it all mean? Where is his reputation now? Those are tough questions, and they remain to be answered.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.