Mixed Feelings

I don’t know how I feel anymore. I hate to become too wrapped up in all this Curlin vs. Big Brown banter and then have it all become moot when they go their separate ways. If it turns out to be nothing but idle chatter, then what good did it do other than provide us with amusement or indignation, depending on how you reacted to it?

There was Rick Dutrow’s harsh challenge to Curlin’s connections, calling them out as would a professional boxer goading an opponent by taking potshots at him and his family. There was Jess Jackson’s stern, but tactful response, scolding the instigator as a teacher would a disruptive student.

Should Curlin and Big Brown face each other for Horse of the Year honors? Certainly. Now that it's not going to happen in the Woodward, should they do it in the Breeders’ Cup Classic? Well, that’s where the ambivalence comes in.

Part of me says go for it and hope they both run to the best of their ability over the synthetic surface, while the other part of me, and the more dominant one, says championships, at least at this time, should not be decided on a synthetic surface, especially one that won’t even be tested until five weeks before the Breeders’ Cup. We have no idea what they’ll be running on. I keep picturing Curlin and Big Brown getting beat by a synthetic surface specialist who couldn’t warm them up on a dirt track and going away feeling, what a waste of time that was. And then it will hit me: “Geez, we have to go through this again next year.”

Even if Curlin wins and Big Brown finishes second, or vice versa, can you honestly say it was a true test, or did the loser simply not handle the track as well he would have had the race been on dirt? I can’t help but think of Street Sense, who ran well enough on Polytrack to be competitive, but was not anywhere near as good as he was on dirt. Getting beat a nose in the Blue Grass Stakes and finishing a good third in the Breeders’ Futurity would suggest that he handled the Polytrack fine. But compare it to his subsequent performances in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and you can clearly see he was a totally different horse on dirt than he was on synthetic.

Yes, you can always say a sloppy track compromises the chances of some horses. And this is true. But they don’t set off to run in the slop. Last year’s  track at Monmouth was an act of nature on a nature-made surface and it was just unfortunate it had to come in such an important and eagerly anticipated race. Artificial surfaces are not an act of nature; they are just that – artificial, and you would hate to have it produce an artificial result with so much at stake.

I also have mixed feelings about Jess Jackson’s inclination to skip the Classic. Again, you’d love to see Curlin compete on racing’s biggest stage, but I can understand his misgivings about using Curlin as an “experiment,” not even knowing what kind of surface he’ll be running on. What if the new track turns out to be a disaster, just like the previous surface at Santa Anita, or just like the previous surface at Del Mar? Even if it’s not, why run him on an uneven playing field against seasoned synthetic track horses?

Jackson has done everything right in his attempt to show off Curlin to the world, and he must be applauded for his ambitious quest to send the champ to France for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. It is that kind of pioneer spirit we need nowadays to put racing in the national and international spotlight following the Triple Crown. He could, of course, prep Curlin on a synthetic track in the Goodwood, but if he doesn’t take to it then you’ve wasted a race. Maybe that would inspire him to go for the BC Turf, but that would mean running the on dirt, turf, dirt, synthetic, and back to turf. Not only could that confuse the horse, it’s got me totally confused just thinking about it.

As for Dutrow and Big Brown, there’s nothing wrong with a few friendly jabs being thrown between two potential combatants, but with many owners inclined to think of their horses as their “children,” one can understand Jackson taking offense to the personal and derogatory nature of Dutrow’s comments.

“What you have is an attempt to show the animals at their very best,” Jackson said. “And to run down another guy’s horse, it may make for interesting reading for (the press), but I don’t think it’s the right thing to do; it demeans the industry. Yes, I’d love to meet him. It would be great for the industry and for the fans. They’re both great horses.”

Well said by a classy guy. But let’s face it, Dutrow, when he feels strongly about something, speaks from the gut, and when he says “Big Brown is way better than Curlin,” and “Shame on them for not running in the Classic,” he’s saying what he feels -- in this case based on his passion for Big Brown -- and doesn’t care about any repercussions. He’s too focused on what he’s feeling to think about that. Those feelings head straight for the mouth without making the usual stop upstairs where most people screen and then modify them. If people dislike Dutrow, so be it. His philosophy is, he can’t control how people feel about him. That is Rick Dutrow – take him or leave him. This year, many people have left him. Even his owners almost left him. But like he said when asked if this year has felt like a roller coaster ride: “My whole life has felt like a roller coaster ride.”

The guy is a great horseman, regardless of all his baggage, and while his comments provide fodder for the press, if you’re on the other end of them it’s best to just smile, shake your head, and not take him too seriously, just as racing manager Nobutaka Tada did when Dutrow threw several darts at Casino Drive. Sometimes, silence is much louder than rebuttal.

I also commend the decision by IEAH Stables and Dutrow to run in the Classic and wanting to meet Curlin, but I also can’t help but wonder if they’re going to regret it should Big Brown not perform up to his usual standards on the synthetic surface. Honestly, I just don’t know what to think anymore.

There are two possible ways out of this mess. How about if we can get IEAH Stable and Jess Jackson to agree – a handshake will do – to one of two things?

First, they agree to run in the Classic, and if both horses come out of the race in good shape (no phony maladies, please), the winning owner agrees to give the loser, if he so desires, a rematch in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs four weeks later – 1 1/8 miles on the dirt and over a track on which both horses have excelled.

If Jackson remains adamant about not running in the Classic, the other alternative would be to simply agree to meet in the Clark (over a fast track or by mutual agreement over a sloppy track – the horses’ safety must take priority) and the heck with the Classic. If Big Brown’s people want to run for the $5 million, that is their prerogative. But let them shake hands with Jackson beforehand and agree to come back in the Clark. In short, the Clark will be become the championship race, regardless of what happens in the Classic. This way, the horses’ connections are free to prep for the race anywhere they so desire. Just imagine the atmosphere at Churchill Downs having these two magnificent horses square off over what it is hoped will be a fast track.

I realize this will seem too contrived and unrealistic to many, but, heck, it’s a blog, where one can spew forth whatever comes to ones mind, right? In reality, Big Brown is scheduled to have only one or two more races, culminating with the BC Classic. In his connections’ minds, if Big Brown should win the Classic, and they fully expect him to, then what better way to end his career. And they can always claim Curlin had every chance to take the same gamble they did and chose not to. That certainly would make a good case for Big Brown being voted Horse of the Year. So, why agree to run in the Clark? Then again, what if he does lose? That puts Curlin in the driver’s seat and gives his connections the luxury of running him wherever they want, Big Brown or no Big Brown. Knowing Jackson’s sporting nature and his confidence in his horse, he could very well give Big Brown a chance to take Curlin’s crown away from him in the Clark anyway.

So, there you go. I just confused myself even further. If you’ve moved on to another blog by now I can certainly understand why.

For those remaining, instead of rambling on, let’s turn our attention to the Haskell. While up in Saratoga, the vast consensus of opinion among the media and horsemen was that Big Brown’s performance was unimpressive -- he was drifting out, he was under pressure early, he did little running until the last 70 yards, he was facing a mediocre field, and was in danger of losing to an allowance horse.

All true, but having a need to play devil’s advocate, here is the race I saw. I saw a horse who basically hadn’t run since the Preakness; you can add a few fruitless furlongs in the Belmont if you wish. I saw a horse chase a lone speed horse over a notoriously speed-favoring track through testing fractions and still found a way to run him down. And that lone speed horse had a 9 1/4-length win and 102 Beyer over the track, was trained by the destroyer of idols, Nick Zito, and had been the most highly regarded of all of owner Robert LaPenta’s 2-year-olds last year. With some horses, sometimes it takes talent a while to surface, especially when they have things their own way.

I saw a horse who earned a 107 Beyer speed figure and 110 Brisnet figure, turning certain defeat into victory, while showing a whole new dimension. Jerry Brown of Thoro-Graph agonized over this race for four days before giving Big Brown a negative 2 1/4, which was more than a full point better than he got in the Preakness. And he said he came very close to giving him a negative 4 1/4, basically the same record-breaking number he earned in the Kentucky Derby, but decided at least for now to take the conservative approach. Brown said that could change, but added, however, that negative 2 1/4 still is an excellent number. 

Big Brown actually hit another gear in the last 70 yards and was just beginning to run as he approached the wire. And it it’s not like he was all out to win in a photo. He won under a hand ride in the final strides by 1 3/4 lengths in 1:48 1/5 with a gap of 4 1/2 lengths back to the Fountain of Youth winner. Most people knock the :13 final eighth, which isn’t that bad in the first place, but Big Brown’s final eighth in :12 3/5 was certainly respectable enough, especially after chasing a :46 2/5 and 1:10 4/5 pace and a 1:35 1/5 mile and running his two previous quarters in :24 1/5 and :24 3/5.

Let’s remember that Point Given was life and death to win the Haskell over a weak field by a half-length, earning a 106 Beyer. Yet no one castigated him for his performance and for trying to duck in turning for home. Skip Away won the Haskell by one length; Holy Bull won by 1 3/4 lengths; Touch Gold won by 1 1/2 lengths. Curlin ran the worst race of his career in the Haskell, finishing a dull third; Preakness and Belmont winner Hansel finished third, beaten 13 lengths at 1-2. In short, the Haskell is almost always a tough race, and most of its winners have won by small margins, many over horses with a race over the track. Does anyone recall the tough time the overwhelming favorite Lion Heart had with local horse My Snookie’s Boy in both the Long Branch and Haskell?

As for his drifting out, he’s done it before. The legendary John Nerud, having watched all his big races, pointed out that he firmly believes Big Brown has a problem with his mouth, whether it’s a tooth, the roof of his mouth, or even his tongue. He feels he needs a special strap, similar to the leather Indian-style strap he designed for his horses that had a similar problem.

Is Big Brown the super horse he was perceived to be during the spring? Who knows? That still remains to be seen. But, for now, he’s won every race he’s finished. The way people are talking, one would think he lost the Haskell. But he won it. So, at least for now, let’s give him the credit he deserves and see how he progresses off this race. If he regresses, then his connections will have to deal with that. If he moves forward, then the rumblings of a showdown with Curlin will be heard loudly once again.

So, what does all this mean? It means that the Breeders’ Cup will be run on a synthetic surface this year and next year and we just have to accept it. Whoever ships from the Eastern dirt tracks, good for them. Whoever doesn’t, good for them. How’s that for clarification?

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