Just when you think you’ve said all there is to say about Big Brown and/or Curlin, another revelation pops into your head, and the way this volatile soap opera is going, God help you when it does.
This, however, has nothing at all to do with Curlin. It is about the three choices for Big Brown’s prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic – an undetermined grass race at Belmont Park, the Goodwood Stakes at Santa Anita, or the Clement Hirsch Turf Championship at Santa Anita the same day.
Any one of these races could prove to be a good springboard to the Classic, but here is the way I break them down, looking at them from a strategic and historical viewpoint.
As for the grass race at Belmont: eh. I have no idea what that is, who would run in it, how far it would be, when it would be, and how much good it would do for Big Brown as a Classic prep. As a whole, Eastern-based horses have not fared well going to California for the Breeders’ Cup, especially in the Classic, where Slew o’Gold, Alysheba, Gulch, Cryptoclearance, Afleet, Track Barron, Devil His Due, Colonial Affair, Miner’s Mark, Funny Cide, Evening Attire, Perfect Drift, and Volponi were defeated, with 11 of those 13 horses finishing out of the money.
Again, I have no idea who would show up for the race, but you have to ask yourself if a race like that would adequately prepare Big Brown for the Classic. Frankly, I don’t know. And why subject Big Brown to the Belmont holding barn, where he had such a bad experience before the Belmont?
Next, we come to the Goodwood, which has proven to be an excellent prep for the Classic, but if Big Brown runs in that race then he will go into the Classic without a 1 1/4-mile race after the Triple Crown. So what, you ask? Well, maybe it means absolutely nothing, but let’s look at the 3-year-olds who have won the Classic.
Curlin was coming off the 1 1/4-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup against the leading older horse in the country, Lawyer Ron.
Tiznow won the 1 1/4-mile Super Derby in track record time of 1:59 4/5 in September.
Cat Thief ran in the Haskell, the 1 1/4-mile Travers, and then ran against older horses in the Kentucky Cup Classic.
Concern ran in the Travers, the Molson Million, and the Super Derby, giving him two 1 1/4-mile preps.
A.P. Indy ran in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Unbridled ran in the 1 1/4-mile Secretariat and Super Derby.
Sunday Silence romped in the Super Derby.
Only Proud Truth in 1985 did not have a 1 1/4-mile prep, but he won the Discovery Handicap seven days before the Classic, and in that year’s Classic there were only eight horses, four of whom who were 3-year-olds.
Now, we come to the Clement Hirsch, run the same day as the Goodwood. Before that race is discussed, let’s go back to the very first Breeders’ Cup in 1984. Could it be that two of the winners that day got it right, and no one since has followed?
In the first Breeders’ Cup race ever run, Chief’s Crown, who had already established himself as the best 2-year-old in the East, did something unusual. After winning the Saratoga Special, Hopeful, and Cowdin, he passed up the Champagne to go to California and prep for the Juvenile in the Norfolk Stakes in order to get a race over the track and acclimate himself to Southern California. Well, Chief’s Crown won the Norfolk and then the Juvenile, earning himself an Eclipse Award. No Eastern-based 2-year-old has since followed that strategy, with major stakes horses Dehere, Cuvee, Chapel Royal, Alysheba, Bet Twice, Gulch, Demon’s Begone, and Polish Navy all going down to defeat in the Juvenile at California tracks. Yes, Favorite Trick won the Juvenile without a prep in California, but he was so far superior to anyone else and wound being voted Horse of the Year that year. The same goes for Skip Away in the Classic. But those are the exceptions to the rule.
Now, let’s go to the final race on that first Breeders’ Cup card, the Classic. Wild Again, a 30-1 shot despite winning of the Meadowlands Cup, made his final prep for the Classic in a one-mile allowance race on the grass at Bay Meadows 12 days before the Breeders’ Cup. After finishing third, beaten two noses at 1-2, he scored one of the gamest victories in the history of the Classic. Once again, no Eastern-based horse has followed that strategy, and you can see the results from the list of beaten horses mentioned earlier.
So, let’s see what all this adds up to: a 1 1/4-mile race, which would appear to be essential from the list of previous 3-year-old classic winners, a grass prep (which is what Big Brown’s connections are looking for), and a race at the Breeders’ Cup site in order to acclimatize. That would seem to add up to the Clement Hirsch.
This is all based solely on history and fitting together all the pieces of the puzzle. I have no idea what the right prep is for Big Brown. But based on what his connections are looking for, and what has transpired in past Breeders’ Cups, everything seems to point to the Clement Hirsch as the most logical.
What if he gets beat, you might ask? After all, he’ll be facing some talented, veteran older turf horses. Well, so what if he gets beat if the ultimate goal is winning the Classic? No one held it against Curlin getting beat on grass by older horses, and no one is going to hold it against Big Brown, as long as he runs a competitive race. The important thing is that he’ll get the bottom he needs, going 1 1/4 miles; he’ll get his race over the turf they’re looking for; and he’ll acclimate himself to Southern California.
Some may say the Santa Anita turf course could be pretty hard. Well, he has to run somewhere and would running over soft turf against not-yet-known competition prepare him for whatever kind of track he’ll get in the Classic? And if New York doesn’t get any rain, the Belmont turf course can be pretty hard in its own right.
On final thought regarding having a 1 1/4-race after the Triple Crown: racing against 3-year-olds in early May, horses can rely on sheer talent more than stamina. But by late October when they’re facing grade I older horses who are already well-seasoned at 10 furlongs, that stamina is going to come more into play. Perhaps that is why so many 3-year-old Breeders’ Cup Classic winners had a 1 1/4-mile race under their belt in August, September, or October. Perhaps they needed that little extra bottom to excel in the Classic.
So, there you have it. I am not in any way endorsing the Clement Hirsch as the right race for Big Brown. I am merely stating the facts, based on history. And it is history, and a little logic, that seems to be pointing to the Hirsch.