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Jury still out on Big Brown's greatness

AT THE RACES -

June 01, 2008|By LARRY YANOS

Big Brown? Big Red?

Choose either color and you're a winner.

Since trainer Richard Dutrow has already assured the world that Big Brown will win Saturday's $1 million Belmont Stakes and complete the Triple Crown Series sweep, the comparisons will inevitably turn toward the $64,000 question: Is Big Brown -- as a 3-year-old -- in the same class with Secretariat and Man o' War?

Both of those legendary thoroughbreds were nicknamed "Big Red." And both put up some impressive numbers.

As far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out on Big Brown. But don't argue with Dutrow, the Hagerstown native. He thinks Big Brown is a world beater.

Yes, Big Brown is a good one but it's far too early in the game to compare him with the established and proven stars of yesteryear.

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The 3-year-old colt caught my attention when he won the Florida Derby in convincing fashion from the 12 hole. He followed that up with Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes triumphs. It was the proverbial "man-against-boys" scenario.

Can he do it again? And what about his durability? How much longer will he race?

In my opinion, foot problems and the breeding shed are two reasons you won't see this horse on the racetrack in 2009. He may run in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August and he may run in the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita in October, but it will be bye-bye after that.

Jockey Kent Desormeaux calls Big Brown the greatest horse he has ever ridden, high praise from the veteran 38-year-old jockey who once called Maryland his home.

In 1987, he won the Eclipse Award for outstanding Apprentice Jockey and followed that with the Outstanding Jockey Eclipse Award in 1989 and 1992.

It was also in 1989 that Desormeaux -- while riding on the Maryland circuit -- established the national record for most wins in a year with 598.

Desormeaux, who was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2004, is confident when aboard Big Brown.

"He's like a push-button horse," Desormeaux said after the Preakess Stakes two weeks ago at Pimlico. "When you ask him to do something, he delivers. He could run 6 furlongs or a mile and a half. This horse is so versatile."

And so good.

Desormeaux rated the horse in the Preakness Stakes, got within striking distance turning for home, and the rest was history. The jockey showed Big Brown the whip, tapped him lightly on the shoulder, and it was lights out. It's been a while since racing fans have seen such acceleration. It looked like the other horses were standing still.

Desormeaux also had some kind words following the Kentucky Derby and compared Big Brown with some of his previous "all-star" mounts.

It was Desormeaux's third Kentucky Derby win (one of five jockeys with three victories in the Run for the Roses) and probably his most impressive.

"Talent-wise, he's the best horse I've ever ridden," Desormeaux said. "I've had some horses equally as fast. Fusaichi Pegasus was fast. Afternoon Delights was probably the fastest I ever rode, but he didn't have the stamina this guy has. Real Quiet did not have speed. He would never have won a 6-furlong race, and he didn't.

"This horse could win tomorrow if I needed him to. And the difference between him and Pegasus was the precociousness. This guy, he will stand like a statue if I want him to. You saw what he did in Florida. I mean, I was 12-wide so I said, 'Hey, big boy, let's go,' and he took off, cleared the field and came right back to me. He's intelligent. That's the difference. That's what makes him the best now that I've ever ridden. He's got the talent, he's got the brain."

Here's a look at the stars from yesteryear:

ยท Attendance and purses were at record lows when Man o' War made his debut on June 6, 1919. By the time he retired 16 months later, he was a national hero.

Man o' War went to the post 21 times and won 20 races. He won one race by an incredible 100 lengths and triumphed in another carrying 138 pounds. He whipped a Triple Crown champion by 7 lengths in a match race.

When he retired, he held five American records at different distances and had earned more money than any thoroughbred.

Big Red didn't race in the Kentucky Derby because his trainer believed that a soft-boned 3-year-old should not have to run 1 1?4 miles in early May. Instead, he set his sights on the Preakness Stakes (Man o' War held off an upset charge to win) and the Belmont Stakes (a 20-length victory in a two-horse field).

He later defeated Hoodwink by 100 lengths in the 1 5/8-mile Lawrence Realization at Belmont Park.

Man o' War's last race was against Sir Barton, who in 1919 had become the first to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Like most match races, it was hardly competitive.

Man o' War held American records for the fastest mile, 1 1/8 miles, 1 3/8 miles, 1 1?2 miles and 1 5/8 miles. His total earnings were $249,465, a record at the time.

Although Man o' War spent most of his life in Kentucky, he never raced there.

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