While the nation's big-name colts were making headlines in the Triple Crown series, Stellar Brush was losing against moderate stakes competition in Maryland. He is still regarded as a not-ready-for-prime-time 3-year-old. Yet the Pimlico-based son of Broad Brush could soon be recognized as a star of his generation, and he is already as exciting as any of his contemporaries.
Yes, Charismatic ran well to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Yes, Menifee looked good winning the $1 million Haskell Invitational on Sunday. But Stellar Brush's style -- he lags at the rear of the field, then unleashes an explosive burst of speed on the turn -- is electrifying. His one-dimensional style also regularly makes him vulnerable to bad racing luck, but that's the way trainer Dick Small planned his development.
In the mid-1980s, Small trained Broad Brush, the powerful stretch-runner who won 10 stakes races and earned $2.6 million. Despite his superb record, Broad Brush was in little demand when he went to stud; most breeders believe the three most important attributes in a stallion are speed, speed and speed, and Broad Brush wasn't quick. In order to prove Broad Brush's merit to the racing world, owner Robert Meyerhoff bred many of his own good mares to the stallion.
Like their sire, the progeny of Broad Brush weren't precocious or fast. Trainers of young, slow horses will typically drill the animals harder in order to imbue them with more speed, but Small quickly concluded that such tactics were counterproductive. He allowed the youngsters to be plodders.
"I watch all the horses and I try to figure out what the horses want to do," Small said. "Most of the Broad Brushes take a while to get going, and if you try to rush them they use up too much energy. I get blamed for the way they run, but the style comes from the pedigree."
Speed-oriented racing people might ordinarily scoff at a trainer who trains horses to be slow, but Small silenced all the skeptics when he developed Broad Brush's son Concern. Early in his career, the plodding Concern couldn't beat moderate competition in Maryland, but at the end of his 3-year-old season in 1994, he rallied to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. That triumph cemented Broad Brush's reputation as a sire. And it served notice not to scoff at plodding, late-developing horses trained by Small.
"Stellar Brush was just a slow-developing, big, gangly horse," Small said. "He was real green -- almost too green to run him when we did." Nevertheless, the colt won a slow maiden race at Laurel in the third start of his career, and a pair of modest allowance events at the Fair Grounds during the winter. When Small moved Stellar Brush into stakes competition, however, the colt was slightly overmatched -- and unlucky as well.
Horses who come from far behind often encounter bad racing luck; such is the nature of speed-oriented American racing. Small is philosophical when he sees his stretch-runners lose because they were forced to race wide, or encountered traffic problems, or were hurt by a slow pace. "I'm pretty much resigned to it," the trainer said. "If you don't change your plan, you're better off in the long run."
Stellar Brush made his first stakes appearance in the Louisiana Derby, but he had no chance to rally effectively after the leaders set a ridiculously slow pace. He lost twice at Pimlico on days when the track conditions favored speed horses. Then he went to Delaware for a $200,000 stakes on a day when front-runners won six of the other eight races on the card. Yet this time Stellar Brush managed to come from far behind and catch the pace-setter, earning an excellent speed figure. A star had been born, I thought.
Small shipped Stellar Brush to Prairie Meadows Race Track for the Iowa Derby, where he encountered a fresh form of bad luck. I had been invited to Altoona, Iowa, to conduct a seminar, and I was well aware of Stellar Brush's virtues. Before the race I appeared on closed-circuit television and announced: "This 13-horse field may look competitive, but it's not. The outcome is a foregone conclusion. Stellar Brush can't lose." But horses with Stellar Brush's style can always lose. After the leaders set a very slow pace, Stellar Brush tried to rally from 11th place with a five-wide move, and his bold late run fell short.
But he fully redeemed himself by winning the Ohio Derby, making a powerful move on the turn to take the lead; when Ecton Park charged at him in the stretch, he fought back to win a photo finish. (The significance of this effort was made clearer when Ecton Park came back to win the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga, establishing himself as one of the leaders of his generation.)
Yet Small is still inclined to follow a conservative course with Stellar Brush. He'll run the colt tonight in the $250,000 West Virginia Derby, then send him to rich races in Oklahoma and Louisiana. The trainer will give the colt plenty of time to develop before trying to learn if he belongs with the stars of his generation.
"I'm reserving judgment," Small said. "But when he's more mature, I have a feeling he might pull himself to the next level. He reminds me a little of his old man."