Friday, May 9, 2008

Big Brown, Eight Belles

Before I get to my thoughts on Big Brown and the Kentucky Derby, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the unfortunate breakdown of Eight Belles during her gallop out after the race. As someone who owns racehorses, I can say that there is nothing any of the connections- owner, trainer, or jockey, thinks about more than the safety of their horse, no matter what the race. It is the first thing you think about when the gates open and the last thing you think about when the race is over. Many writers, most of whom spend barely any time covering the sport outside of a couple of Saturdays in May, believe the connections made a foolish choice in running Eight Belles in this race, but the truth is there was no way of knowing what could have happened before the race.

There is nothing inherently dangerous in racing fillies and mares against the opposite sex; in fact, it happens more often then you might think, especially at the higher levels of the sport. Ouija Board, Rags to Riches, and Xtra Heat are just some of the more recent examples of fillies than ran, and won, against their male counterparts. Of course, the problem is that when the average sports fan thinks of fillies running against colts, they will invariably think of Ruffian, who broke down in a much hyped match race 30 years ago, and now Eight Belles. Two incidences in 30 years, however, do not make a trend.

More importantly, though, is that there are major, major issues in the sport of thoroughbred racing, issues that need to be addressed. The problem is that the media, and to a greater degree PETA, have absolutely no idea what these issues are or how to resolve them. PETA, for example, believes the "crocodile tears" of Eight Belles connections hide their true intentions, to make as much money as possible by exploiting helpless animals. Perhaps if the leaders of PETA did, say, five minutes of research into the sport, they would realize that A) horsemen care passionately about their horses, not just as racing prospects but as animals, and B) the vast majority of owners lose money owning horses, and except for the upper echelon of trainers and jockeys, most backstretch workers are living paycheck to paycheck. Even great jockeys and trainers have bad years, and when they do, they simply do not make much money.

As I said though, there are major issues in the sport, and if PETA were to realize that every person involved in horse racing isn't an evil, soulless rich person looking to exploit animals, they could effect change as an impartial outsider working together with horsemen who also care about the well being of the animals. While the media endlessly drones on about switching to a synthetic dirt surface (which, while promising in that it has reduced breakdowns at tracks, has also increased other issues with horses, including hoof problems and tendon issues which can lead to breakdowns down the road), or not racing a horse until he is three, four or even five years old, nobody talks about one of the biggest problems facing the sport: the two year old in training sales in the winter and spring.

The horses in these sales, many of them still under 2 years old (although, for the purposes of the sport, every horse born before January 1st has their first birthday on New Year's day), are asked to work out, usually twice, often times an eight of a mile and a quarter mile as fast as possible. As the industry over the past 20 years has changed from more home-bred horses to more horses bought at these sales, a lot of these horses are rushed at an early age to work fast, and too often given drugs either to mask an injury or to make a horse look more physically imposing.

This is one of the parts of the business where the economics don't always match up with the best interests of the horse, and therefore something PETA could be active in to make a change. It isn't in the farms best interests to regulate themselves, as a flashy colt who works a snappy time can sell for six or even seven figures. Two years ago, The Green Monkey worked the fastest eight of a mile of any horse at his sale, and was sold for $16 million dollars (although the actual sale was for less money, as a deal was already in place for the colt). The horse never turned out to be much of anything; he was recently retired, still a maiden. But from a breeder's standpoint, there is a great incentive to breed and train horses like this, even if it is detrimental to the long term development of the horse.

Of course, it would probably be asking too much from either PETA or the average sports journalist to address this issue, but it really is something that could drastically change the sport for the better. Perhaps if horses were not rushed to make the sales, not asked to run as fast a quarter mile as their developing bodies can, and not pumped full of drugs, the breed could become more sound and durable. Sadly, though, I fear that is not something that will happen anytime soon.

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As for Big Brown... well, what can you say? He clearly is the best horse of his generation, and the question becomes whether he regresses over the next four weeks or if another three year old can step up to the plate and really challenge Big Brown. As for the latter, a very interesting match could be developing for the Belmont Stakes, between Big Brown and Casino Drive. Casino Drive, for those of you who don't know (which I would assume is everybody, except that I am the only person who reads this blog, so I guess that means nobody), is out of the dam Better than Honour, who has foaled the last TWO Belmont Winners, Jazil and Rags to Riches. Casino Drive broke his maiden in Japan by over 11 lengths, but hasn't raced since, so it will be interesting to see how he fares tomorrow in the Peter Pan, but if he does well he could pose Big Brown's biggest obstacle for racing immortality.

But back to Big Brown for a moment. Kent Desormeaux deserves a lot of credit for his ride in the Derby, as he was able to work out to a T the trip I'm sure both he and Dutrow were hoping for when they chose post 20. Big Brown was able to stay clear of horses throughout the entire trip, while only being 3-4 wide. It's not often that 3-4 wide is where you want to be, but in a 20 horse field 3-4 wide without traffic is really all you can ask for, especially if you have the best horse in the field. He was also able to work out a nice breather down the back stretch, all while hanging around close to the leaders, and when it was time to run, there was never any doubt that Big Brown would win for fun.

The question becomes, exactly how good is Big Brown, and can be become an all time great? In terms of pure speed figures, his numbers are on par with other Derby winners over the past decade, which leads you to believe he might not be a lock to win the Triple Crown. The wild card is that this is one of the weakest crops of three year olds to run in the triple crown races in a very long time. All winter, handicappers, including myself, tried to figure out why the times for all of the prep races were so slow. Was it the synthetic tracks? Was it the early pace of the race being too slow? Nope, turns out these horses are just slow. One of the things lost with the breakdown of Eight Belles was that she was much, much faster than every horse in the race not named Big Brown. Earlier in the year, both Proud Spell and Indian Blessing, two fillies, ran faster at the same distance on the same day at the Fair Grounds as Pyro did in the Louisiana Derby. That is not to take anything away from these fillies, all of them are nice in their own right, but in a normal year they would not be able to match up to their male counterparts, let alone dominate them.

As for the Preakness, it looks as though the field is going to be light, and Big Brown will be the monster favorite, perhaps as low as 1/2 or 2/5. Rick Dutrow normally does not like to wheel his horses back with 13 days rest, but he has no choice this time, and that may be something to watch. Still, at this point I would be somewhat surprised if Big Brown wasn't able to handle these horses on 13 hours rest, let alone 13 days. If fatigue were to be an issue, my guess is that it would show up turning for home in the Belmont. As for how good Big Brown is, you can't yet put him above a horse like Barbaro, who won stakes on turf and dirt, or even a horse like Point Given who won triple crown races against superior foes. All that being said, Big Brown is clearly a freak, and perhaps the scariest part about his abilities is that he has every right to keep getting better, as most horses do early in his career. He didn't bob and weave down the stretch in the Derby like he did during the Florida Derby, and if he keeps putting the pieces together mentally while physically growing stronger, it won't matter what horses he faces over the next four weeks.

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