A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed the quote, "In 27 years of riding, I never saw a horse accelerate like this one," to Jerry Bailey. This was actually said by Gary Stevens.
Hard to Measure
Thoroughbred racing always is hungry for a new hero. And the sport particularly is desperate for a hero after the death of the filly Eight Belles tarnished the Kentucky Derby and produced a torrent of bad publicity. So it was understandable that Big Brown's victory in the Preakness would be greeted with elation and lavish superlatives.
"In 27 years of riding, I never saw a horse accelerate like this one," declared Gary Stevens, the Hall of Fame jockey who now is an NBC commentator.
"This is the horse of a lifetime, said Kent Desormeaux, who rode the winner.
Amid all this excitement, combined with the general relief that nothing catastrophic happened all day at Pimlico, only a spoilsport would point out that Big Brown's ridiculously easy victory didn't tell us whether he is a great horse -- or just the dominant member of a weak thoroughbred crop.
Rarely do a horse and rider win any kind of race -- let alone a major stakes -- with such obvious disdain for the competition. After Desormeaux put Big Brown into perfect stalking position behind two pacesetters, he was totally confident he could take command of the Preakness at will. He kept his mount under iron restraint, looking under his shoulder, looking to his side to see if anybody was mounting a challenge. Nobody was. Turning into the stretch, Desormeaux urged Big Brown -- without using the whip -- for about a dozen strides, and left his 11 rivals far in his wake.
With the race under control, he said, "I just stopped riding." As Desormeaux forcefully applied the brakes to Big Brown, he was thinking three weeks ahead to the Belmont Stakes. He wanted to keep some energy in the tank before Big Brown attempts to become the first winner of the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
Big Brown's performance surely gave the impression that his potential is limitless. Indeed, so did his runaway Kentucky Derby victory. But experienced race-watchers and handicappers know that these win-under-a-hammerlock victories are frequently deceptive. In 2006, Bernardini captured the Preakness and a series of major stakes races so easily that it appeared he could sprout wings and fly if his jockey ever turned him loose. But when he finally encountered a formidable opponent, Invasor, in the Breeders' Cup Classic, he didn't show a new dimension to his talent. Invasor beat him decisively. It is an enduring truth of the game: Horses don't prove much by winning easy. They prove themselves by beating good competition.
Big Brown has not yet faced rivals who can challenge him. The supporting cast in the 133rd Preakness was a pitiful group, with only two graded stakes winners among them. The competition was so weak that bettors made Gayego the second choice in the wagering, even though he had lost the Derby by 36 3/4 lengths. The Derby field had been an unusually weak one as well. And in the race that marked Big Brown's emergence as a leading 3-year-old, the Florida Derby, his competition was negligible.
In his five-race career, Big Brown still has not beaten a horse of real quality, nor has he been fast enough to prove he is a horse for the ages. His Kentucky Derby time was on par with recent winners such as Street Sense; his Preakness time of 1 minute 54.8 seconds on a lightning-fast Pimlico track was undistinguished, thanks to Desormeaux's restraint.
Of course, it's not Big Brown's fault that he was born into a sub-par thoroughbred generation. But if the colt is going to have his name linked with the likes of Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat and Citation -- the last four Triple Crown winners -- racing fans want to see him do something more than beat bad horses handily.
Perhaps Big Brown finally will get a challenge when he faces the intriguing Casino Drive three weeks hence. A superbly bred half-brother to two Belmont Stakes winners, the colt won his racing debut in Japan and then captured a prep for the Belmont by five lengths. However, the definitive test for Big Brown -- as for most 3-year-olds -- ought to come when he faces older horses in the fall. If he runs against Curlin, the 2007 Preakness winner and horse of the year, nobody will ever again question the quality of his opposition.
Because Big Brown lives in an era when the top thoroughbred stallions are extraordinarily valuable, he will have limited opportunities to show his stuff. On Saturday his majority owner, the IEAH Stable, sealed a $50 million deal to send Big Brown to Three Chimneys Farm for stud duty next year. When a horse is worth so much money, the owner and the breeder who buy him may be reluctant to risk defeats that might tarnish his reputation. In recent years, outstanding Preakness winners such as Point Given (2001), Smarty Jones (2004) and Afleet Alex (2005) all were retired before they ever had the chance to face older rivals.
People who understand the economics of the game would not bet that they ever will see a Big Brown vs. Curlin confrontation. It is possible that Big Brown could leave the sport before anyone knows how good he might be.