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Big Brown hoping to deliver Triple Crown and restore luster to lagging industry

Big Brown hoping to deliver Triple Crown and restore luster to lagging industry

Dozens of cameras click in unison as soap suds slide off American horse racing's Next Great Hope.
Standing just outside Barn 2 at Belmont, Big Brown poses serenely. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner is at ease with the buzz on every side of him and the weight of racing history riding on his tender left front hoof.
Big Brown heads to the starting gate on Saturday for the Belmont Stakes with a chance at becoming the 12th horse ever to win U.S. racing's Triple Crown, and the first since Affirmed in 1978.
It's a feat that used to be among the most celebrated in sports, and past winners have become worldwide sensations.
The industry hopes it's Big Brown's turn, if only to return some luster to a sport that could desperately use a public-relations boost.
The pieces, it seems, are in place.
The scene around the barn on Friday evoked racing's golden age, when champions like Citation shared the headlines with Joe DiMaggio and the sport's owners were blue-blooded American royalty.
Yet it's the scene over at the Belmont track a few hours later that paints a more realistic picture of the current state of horse racing in America. A smattering of fans were scattered like so much confetti around the massive grandstand, scurrying to get their bets in on races run by horses who will never be confused with Secretariat or Affirmed.
Belmont is hardly the only track with plenty of good seats still available.
With the proliferation of other gambling outlets _ from the state lottery to church bingo to Indian and riverboat casinos _ the racecourse no longer is the only place where you can press your luck.
"It used to be Atlantic City or Las Vegas if you wanted to do any other type of gambling," said Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day. "Now there's gambling on every street corner."
Most venues stopped releasing attendance figures more than a decade ago. Though the growth of off-track and online betting makes it easier than ever to put $2 on a long shot, the handle has flattened out at $15 billion (euro9.6 billion).
"The sports public is pulled in so many directions," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. "There's so many sports, so much more to watch, so much more to do."
Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat, agrees. "Big Red" became a legend 35 years ago when his quest for a Triple Crown allowed the nation to takes its mind off the Watergate scandal.
"We're not going to return to the glory days when the whole world tuned in to Citation or Count Fleet or even Secretariat," she said. "I think those days are over."
Technology and cable TV networks dedicated to the sport have made it easier than ever to get involved. But racing has struggled to stay relevant.
The three Triple Crown races aren't the problem. The Kentucky Derby packed 157,000 into Churchill Downs. Over 120,000 could cram Belmont on Saturday to watch Big Brown try to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. This year's Derby attracted huge TV ratings. The audience for the Belmont promises to be just as big.
It's the other 51,000 races a year that could use a little help.
A giddy celebration in the winner's circle late Saturday would take some of the sting out of the hits the industry has taken over the last few years.
From the deaths of Barbaro and Eight Belles to mounting criticism of racing's lax medication rules and breeding practices, "the game," as those involved call it, hasn't felt like much of one lately.
A Triple Crown would restore some of the luster, even if only for a few hours, but it couldn't rescue racing by itself.
"I don't think there's anybody that is going to save the industry. The industry has to save itself," said Michael Iavarone, co-owner of IEAH Stables, the syndicate that owns Big Brown. "I think what he can do is gain some positive momentum instead of the negative momentum that we've all been facing."
In recent years, too many of racing's biggest stories have been made far away from the finish line.
The high-profile breakdowns of Barbaro and Eight Belles _ who was euthanized on the track just moments after finishing second to Big Brown in the Derby _ have raised questions about the durability of today's thoroughbreds and done little to win over casual fans.
Critics say breeders are focusing too much on speed and a horse that looks good in the sales pavilion, not the starting gate, leading to horses that are too fragile and susceptible to breakdowns.
"When they crash and burn on the race track, it's such a turnoff," Chenery said. "People are really horrified about that and we can't afford it. We need to breed sounder horses."
Help may also be on the way with the advent of synthetic surfaces like Polytrack. There is early but limited evidence that the mixture of sand and rubber is easier on horses than traditional dirt, possibly extending their racing careers.
Just not the superstars, most of whom are whisked from the track to the breeding shed faster than bettors racing to the ticket window to cash a ticket.
Though Iavarone has pledged to race Big Brown through the end of this year, it might not be worth the risk when one bad step can cost owners millions.
"Their greatest moment is not when the horse is turned over to the breeding shed," Iavarone said, "it's when they can go in the stands and watch the horse run."
IEAH Stables already has a breeding deal with Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Kentucky where Big Brown will stand at stud once he's done racing, and the owners have a $50 million (euro32 million) insurance policy, at a premium of $2 million (euro1.3 million) a year.
If Big Brown was to continue racing as a 4-year-old, as Triple Crown winners like Seattle Slew and Affirmed did, he would have to win several major stakes races next year just to cover the insurance bill.
"There is no economic sense," Iavarone said. "He is maxed out."
Iavarone estimated Big Brown's value could surge to $100 million (euro64 million) if he wins the Belmont, a figure that could double over the course of his stud career. Advances in the breeding process have turned the best thoroughbreds into four-legged automatic cash dispensers, and Three Chimneys is already taking phone calls from owners hoping to breed their mares with him.
As brazen as trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. has been during Big Brown's Triple Crown pursuit, and as much as the race fan in him would love to see the colt cement his legacy by racing beyond autumn, he knows there is too much at stake.
"I think it's safer for the horse," he said. "I mean, we would all be sick if we talked people into running him next year and something bad would happen."
The best case scenario for the industry is having Big Brown run through the Breeders' Cup in October, when he could face 2007 U.S. Horse of the Year Curlin, the rare superstar who has continued to run as a 4-year-old.
"It's those kinds of rivalries that are critical in every sport," said National Thoroughbred Racing Association CEO Alex Waldrop. "If we can use that Breeders' Cup event to promote interest at that time of year, I think it would be an incredible opportunity."
Curlin's trainer, Steve Asmussen, welcomed the challenge, even suggesting the two should get together in a match race.
"I'm extremely curious," he said. "Everybody always wants to compare when they don't have a chance to defend themselves. Why not compare them when they can?"
The race would also help put Big Brown in some historical context. Impressive as his resume is, it may be incomplete. The Belmont will be just the sixth race of his career, and the rest of the current crop of 3-year-olds is largely anonymous. Affirmed won the Triple Crown in three epic duels with Alydar, each bringing out the best in the other.
Big Brown won the Derby with a bold move on the turn and then captured the Preakness while practically jogging. Those wins came so easily they left race fans wondering if Big Brown is that good or everybody else is that bad.
Taking on Curlin would provide some answers.
"We need to see if Big Brown can step up," trainer Larry Jones said. "Horse racing needs a star."
But a race against Curlin comes with its own set of risks _ even if Big Brown comes out of the race healthy. If he retired undefeated, Big Brown's stud fee heads for the stratosphere. If he heads to the Classic instead and gets whipped by seven or eight lengths, it could cost his owners millions.
It's a gamble that Big Brown's owners will have to take if they want him to be considered among the best of all time.
"In order to be stamped as one of the great ones, he'd have to carry it a bit further," Lukas said. "I think he has to at least go into the autumn. Affirmed and Seattle Slew and those horses ran beyond their 3-year-old year and they became household names. To put him in that category, they better run him further than five outs."
Of course, the argument over Big Brown's spot in racing's pantheon is moot if he fails to win the Belmont, where so many Triple Crown dreams have been swallowed up along the track's yawning home stretch. None of the last 10 horses who arrived here with the first two jewels of the Triple Crown was able to join racing's most exclusive club.
The importance isn't lost on Dutrow. Having grown up in the game, he knows only too well how quickly fortunes can change.
"I'd like to try to help," Dutrow said. "Maybe Big Brown will help out there. I hope."


Updated : 2021-07-26 12:58 GMT+08:00