Why do racing fans coalesce around one horse and not another? Favorability can be as simple as a catchy name (Smarty Jones) or backing an underdog (Funny Cide). Unfavorability, since horses themselves don’t usually rub us the wrong way, is tied to the animal’s human connections.
Nobody should question Big Brown's talent. Yet, other than vying for the Triple Crown, he has not captured the public’s fancy in the manner of the above-mentioned pair. In fact, some people were rooting for him to lose at Belmont, despite the fact his bust there cost the sport millions in lost marketing and advertising. So why hasn’t he become the people’s horse?
The most publicized of his connections is his trainer, Rick Dutrow Jr. Like all of us, Dutrow is an imperfect human being. Unlike many, he cares little about hiding his imperfections. He’s had issues feeding himself and his horses drugs, and talks about it. His rider throws in a clunker in the Belmont, and Dutrow wails on him. The man says what he thinks.
This trait, which I find refreshing, has been portrayed by most as a negative. Apparently, folks prefer bland and covert. If you think Dutrow is the only famous trainer who is familiar with an equine medicine cabinet, you’re wrong. The others just don’t talk about suspensions and steroids.
Dutrow is brash, abrasive. Before the Derby, he told everyone he had the best 3-year-old in the land. “Oh, he’s going to find out what a humbling experience the Derby can be,” said the provincials.
So Dutrow’s crime became being right. He does have the best 3-year-old in the country. But his media detractors kept grumbling about the guy who gave them column after column, biting the hand that fed them quotes.
Now, the owners. You don’t have to be Mother Teresa for your horse to be admired. Roy Chapman (Smarty Jones) wasn’t exactly warm and fuzzy, and moved Fords for a living. But Mike Iavarone and Richard Schiavo of IEAH Stables? Too New York? Too ethnic?
Nine years ago, Iavarone was fined, censured, and suspended by securities regulators for making unauthorized stock trades. This year, he lied about his Wall Street background while attempting to cover up his history. You want to dislike him and his horses? Have at it.
But know that he and Schiavo are opening an equine hospital under the direction of the respected Dr. Patty Hogan that will save horses’ lives. He and Schiavo have donated money to the children of a New York cop shot in the line of duty. And unlike industry bureaucrats who have failed to do so, they are succeeding in bringing young professionals into this sport.
How about Big Brown’s other three owners? Paul Pompa Jr. gets up in the dark to get to his Brooklyn trucking business at 6:30 each morning. He started small in horses, and then hit a home run with Big Brown. He’s funny, unassuming, cooperative, and one of the nicest guys I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.
And what of IEAH partners Andrew Cohen and Gary Tolchin? Cohen, 51, has two kids and works on Wall Street. He owned a couple of trotters, and bought into his first Thoroughbred four years ago. “I own parts of 20 now. I got a little carried away, which is a good thing.”
Cohen donned jockey silks for the winner’s circle photo after Kip Deville won at Keeneland last year. “It wasn’t the most flattering photo I’ve ever taken,” laughed the corpulent Cohen. “It was the first big race I’d won, and I got so excited I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m having the time of my life.”
Tolchin, 48, is a father of three from the Bronx. His father, Sam, worked nights, and the only time Gary and his brother saw him was weekends, when they’d go to the races.
“We didn’t have money growing up; my father would bet $2 or $4, but we had a great time at the track,” Tolchin said. “Those were special times for the three of us.”
Agreeing that life is too short, Gary’s wife gave him the OK to invest in Big Brown. “You love it; just do it,” she told him.
Sam Tolchin passed away last year. “My only regret is he’s not here for this run,” said Gary. “He might bet $6 win, $4 place on Big Brown. I’m sure he’s looking down on us now and going crazy.”
So go ahead and root against Big Brown, if it really makes you feel any better.