By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Big Brown Machine
Saturday's Kentucky Derby favorite arrives fresh from South Florida.
For the past two weeks, Palm Meadows has clattered with the sounds of an army leaving a battlefield. Early last Thursday at the thoroughbred training facility in Boynton Beach, stable hands load tack into the trunks of cars and the backs of minivans, and huge trailers full of horses churn past the entry guardhouse toward I-75, heading to the Northern tracks. With Hallandale Beach's Gulfstream season finished, the facility, which can house as many as 1,200 horses at a time, is fast turning into a sleepy farm with empty barns.
But a small klatch of trainers and track administrators, gathered on a trackside tower, isn't involved in the logistical shakedown. These men are focused on the here-and-now. They're thinking about the Kentucky Derby, American's premier horserace, which takes place Saturday. In the dim morning light, they squint toward the far side of the track.
"That our boy?" somebody asks.
"Yeah. Here he goes."
Out there, a speeding horse has burst forward, heading in a straight line toward the far turn. Even at that distance, racing along a waist-high hedge, its stride looks classically graceful, a relentlessly efficient forward motion that carries horse and rider around the bend. The horse rounds the turn and approaches the tower, and the men can hear its hoofs rhythmically smacking the dirt. It crosses an imaginary line next to the tower, and several of the onlookers stare at the stopwatches in their hands.
One horse, standing next to the rail, looks up at the men on the platforms of the observation tower.
"I got 58-1," the man says, looking doubtfully at his watch. He needs confirmation.
"Yeah, 58-1," someone else says.
The number sits in the air for all to ponder in disbelief or awe.
The big horse, ridden by his assistant trainer, an Irishwoman named Michelle Nevin, has just covered five-eighths of a mile in almost two seconds less than a minute. It's a sizzling pace, a shade under 40 mph. Trainers are usually happy if their horses, even stakes contenders, cover the same distance in a minute or 61 seconds.
The beast in question is Big Brown, a big and, yes, brown stallion, with a lick of white in the middle of his forehead, who has been training in South Florida since he handily won the Florida Derby on March 29. Brown is now the odds-on favorite to carry the day in Kentucky. The playful, peppermint-addicted three-year-old is trained by Richard Dutrow Jr., who these days lounges around Barn 22 at Palm Meadows as mellow as a Key West sunset.
Brown, with only three races behind him, all impressive wins, seems to be cresting, Dutrow says. Just in time.
"He's pulling the other horses around the track now," says Dutrow, a chunky man with a big, pleasant face, like Jonathan Winters without the flashes of panic. "Before, he was very, very manageable. Now, he's getting aggressive out there. He's more into the bridle. I like seeing that."
Big Brown has fallen in love with Florida, Dutrow says. The horse glows with contentment, shambling around the barn behind hotwalker Alberto Montejo, standing alertly as a groom douses him in suds and water, and flicking his tail playfully at the men who work on him. "He's spoiled rotten," says Dutrow, who plies Brown with mint candies. "We let him get away with murder." The horse was named by his first owner, a trucking executive for UPS, giving Big Brown an imposing cachet, like the powerful Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s, which became the Big Red Machine. He's the Big Brown Machine.
The morning workout, which had bystanders doing double takes (and whose time will go into the Daily Racing Form officially as 58 and 3/5), was the last breeze-out before the Derby, Dutrow says, except for a three-furlong sprint at Churchill Downs to familiarize the horse with the track. Dutrow says he told Nevin, who also works as an exercise rider for Dutrow: "Let's do a little more this morning. When he turns for home, let 'im up a notch." Brown responded energetically.
Asked what it's like riding a speed demon such as Brown, Nevin, a woman of few words, replies, "Awesome. It's so easy for him. You just have to sit there with a relaxed hold on him."
On race day, veteran jockey Kent Desormeaux will be in the saddle. Desormeaux, says Dutrow, brings aggressiveness, enthusiasm, and experience to the mix. "And we like him," the trainer says.
Big Brown isn't just a horse; he's an investment property. His majority owner is International Equine Acquisitions Holdings, an 80-member collective that operates like a hedge fund. The investors are money people with a rare opportunity to get emotionally involved, bringing a lot of action to the track where IEAH horses have raced.
"When Big Brown won the Florida Derby, I had to do a little census of the number of people in the winner's circle," says Gulfstream's head of media relations, Mike Mullaney. "There were more than 40."
Of course, that kind of backing might introduce a downside for the average bettor. With a battalion of rich people betting on Big Brown, the odds may get artificially lowered. That means lower payoffs for bets on Big Brown. Will he still be the favorite Saturday, in a field of 20 horses?