It is not often that a horse wins a $1 million grade I race and people still walk away scratching their heads.
Was it a good performance or not?
It is a difficult question to answer. Then again, we should not have expected anything less. From the very start, everything about Big Brown seems to be complicated.
On Sunday at Monmouth Park, Big Brown won the Haskell Invitational, as he collared front-running Coal Play inside the sixteenth-pole to win by 1 3/4 lengths. In one respect, Big Brown did exactly what his connections wanted him to do - rebound from his disappointment in the Belmont Stakes and restore his reputation.
On the other hand, it was not the visually impressive performance that many expected - including trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. - and it was far from a resounding win. In fact, the horse he struggled to beat, Coal Play, had only maiden and allowance wins to show for his eight-start career.
So, what did we learn?
For one, the most important thing is that Big Brown did what he had to do to continue his racing career. Had he come up empty down the stretch, as it appeared for a short while that he was going to do, there is a decent possibility that we would have seen the last of the dual classic winner. After hearing Mike Iavarone afterward, it seems fairly certain that Big Brown will race at least twice more before his career ends. In that respect, it was an important win.
Also, after looking at the replays several times, I give Big Brown a little more credit than I did while watching the race live. One must take into consideration that he was entering off a nearly two-month layoff and won despite coming off a last place finish in his most recent race, something no horse had ever done in the Haskell.
More importantly, after seeing the fractions and final time, it must be pointed out that Coal Play ran a terrific race. As stated above, Coal Play had done nothing prior to this race for people to say he was anything but an average 3-year-old. But you can take nothing away from the fact that he ran a :23 opening quarter, :46 2/5 half-mile, 1:10 4/5 for six furlongs and 1:35 mile. They are very solid splits. Anyone, let alone Big Brown, would have a difficult time running down a horse who runs those numbers. And the final time of 1:48.31 was respectable.
And while it was obvious that Coal Play was leg weary in that final furlong, give Big Brown a lot of credit for having the grit to run by him when he was obviously not at his best.
On the flip side of this debate, anyone who watched the Haskell could see that Big Brown did not have the same explosiveness that he showed in every one of his other races (save the Belmont, of course). Kent Desormeaux certainly did not have a "freak" under him, as he has in the past. He had a very good race horse that used his talent and experience to get the job done. And as all of know by now, he got the job done against a very average field.
So what did Big Brown's Haskell win really tell us? Other than it appears he has regressed a bit from the first half of the year, not much. I am going to need to see him run these final two races before I make my final judgment on him. I will also need to see what Coal Play does the rest of the year to really see who Big Brown beat.
The early rumors are that Iavarone will send him to either the Massachusetts Handicap or the Pennsylvania Derby (Wow, imagine Big Brown coming to Philly Park). But this won't be decided for a week or more. In the meantime, let's do what we do best - analyze this performance until we're blue in the face.