OCEANPORT, N.J. - Is Big Brown really back?
After a too-close-for-comfort victory in Sunday's $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, there could be more questions than answers about Big Brown's future.
Yes, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner bounced back from his last-place finish in the Belmont Stakes eight weeks ago. But no, the win was far from overpowering against six weak rivals who had combined for two graded stakes wins.
Neither trainer Rick Dutrow nor co-owner Michael Iavarone would commit to Big Brown's next race after his 1¾-length victory over Coal Play, but Dutrow all but ruled out the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 23. Both were noncommittal about possible races next month before a planned career-ending run in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita.
"I think right now Rick will evaluate him and we'll plan a sensible campaign," said Iavarone, co-president of IEAH Stables, majority owner of Big Brown. "The Breeders' Cup Classic is the ultimate goal."
It might not be a realistic goal.
Big Brown has been syndicated for a reported $50 million and will be retired to stud after his final race. The next step would be to take on older horses, perhaps even 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin. However, Big Brown had a tough time defeating a weak field of 3-year-olds in the 1 1-8-mile Haskell, and another loss could affect his value as a stallion.
Ridden by Kent Desormeaux, Big Brown shot to the lead but Coal Play quickly took over and led into the stretch in front of a cheering crowd of 45,132. The colt trained by Nick Zito, who won the Belmont with 38-1 shot Da' Tara, dug in under local favorite Joe Bravo but could not hold off Big Brown's rush to the wire.
"I was concerned at the 3-8ths pole and it looked like we were beat turning for home," Dutrow said. "But he got down on his belly and he won, though."
Said Zito: "I thought we had a helluva shot turning for home. I thought to myself 'we could do this again.' I am very happy right now. We made him run, that's for sure. Big Brown looked great in the paddock and when he broke. But down the backside I got excited. Coal Play ran a big race."
It was a side of Big Brown that had not been seen before. The colt won his first five starts by a combined 39 lengths, then was pulled up by Desormeaux with a quarter-mile to go in the Belmont.
No injuries were found after that race - not from a quarter crack in his left front hoof or from a loose shoe at the start. Iavarone also said the decision to stop giving Big Brown the steroid Winstrol in April was not a factor in the loss.
Big Brown trained solidly for his return. Coming into the Haskell, Dutrow was full of confidence: "If he runs his race, he'll win."
He didn't run his race, but he still won, and that's the way Big Brown's connections will view the result.
"His reputation was on the line today," said Iavarone. "He's a top horse. It was little more than I was expecting - he really struggled out there to run this horse down but Zito's horse ran great."
The win was in doubt until the final six strides, when Big Brown prevailed on a sunny day with temperatures in the low 80s.
When Desormeaux went to the whip entering the stretch, Dutrow said, "I thought we were going to get beat."
Added Desormeaux: "He found a new gear and just kept sticking his neck out. I knew he was going to get there. At the top of the stretch that horse (Coal Play) took off, but Big Brown took off after him.... Today, he showed he's a warrior."
Sent off as the 1-5 favorite, Big Brown covered the 1 1-8 miles in 1:48.31.
Cool Coal Man, also trained by Zito, was third, followed by Alaazo, Nistle's Crunch, Atoned and Magical Forest. Big Brown returned $2.40 for a $2 win bet.
The win was worth $600,000 for owners IEAH Stables, Paul Pompa Jr., Gary Tolchin and Andrew Cohen and boosted Big Brown's bankroll to $3,314,500.
Big Brown is the second Kentucky Derby winner to win the Haskell, first run in 1968. The other was War Emblem in 2002.
Possibly races for Big Brown's next start include the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 1, the MassCap on Sept. 20, or the Jockey Club Gold Cup or Goodwood Breeders' Cup (both Sept. 27).