Big Brown won the Haskell. So why am I not thrilled? In fact, why was I just about sick to my stomach after the race was over? On the bright side of things, we witnessed a new side to the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner last Saturday. Never before had the champ been on his belly and been forced to dig deep to pull off a victory. There was no overpowering romp in this race. And while asking for Big Brown to once again blow away his competition might be asking too much of him, the Haskell raises even more questions than when the champ was first entered in the race.
Coming into the turn, jockey Kent Desormeaux began to work on Big Brown. It seemed a repeat in the Belmont was about to unfold before our eyes. Gone was the Big Brown who inhaled his competitors in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. This was a horse being pleaded with, a horse who looked beaten before he entered the stretch for home. And then, shortly after the point in which he was pulled up in the Belmont, the champ seemed to be fighting back. He was struggling to keep up with the Zito-trained Coal Play, but something in him sparked. Whatever was going on in the mind of the fallen champ was resolved, and he began to summon every ounce of courage he could muster. He worked to pass the front-runner, refusing to come up short. He would not be denied the glory of the winner’s circle again. Coal Play fought harder, and with barely 1/8th of a mile to the finish, Big Brown summoned his kick and blew past the horse in Da’ Tara’s silks. A hair-raiser indeed. A new Big Brown showed his stuff on Haskell day, and the thing that eats at me is the question: what if that Brownie was the one who entered the gates at Belmont?
It’s true the Belmont and the Haskell were two completely different races. Big Brown was rank at the start of the Belmont, never settling in, and was forced to go about six wide for more than half of the race. Not to mention his hind foot was stepped on strides out of the gate and he ran his race on a bent shoe. The Haskell began in Brownie’s favor. Desormeaux let him shoot to the lead like the horse wanted. He was settled down easier, even as the jockey let Coal Play take over the lead. Whether or not that was a good move will never be known, but we do know the Big Brown of old liked to take the lead and finish with a ground-eating kick. I’m inclined to believe, in studying the behavior of Big Brown in races, that he becomes difficult when he does not get his way. Is it possible he doesn’t like being turned off and on like everyone likes to believe? That would explain why in both the Belmont and the Haskell, Mr. Big looked as if he was cooked before entering the final turn. He’s already made it clear he doesn’t prefer Desormeaux on his back, after all.
And so, the revelation came to me after watching the Haskell that Desormeaux might have pulled Big Brown up in the Black Belmont before the horse had figured out what he wanted to do. Yes, horses were catching up to him in the turn when the jockey decided to throw in the towel, but who’s to say how he would’ve finished? What the Haskell proved to me was that the horse is forming a bad habit as he enters the turn and needs to be worked on like he was in the Haskell. Desormeaux is famous for saying he “had no horse under [him]” in the Belmont, but what if Brownie had decided he didn’t want to move at that moment? What if he was in the middle of becoming a new horse in the mile and a half Belmont? He would’ve had the ground not only to catch up with the rest of the field, but if he had the same power as in the Haskell, possibly finish in the money. What if Desormeaux is not reading Big Brown correctly, and needs to just let the horse run his own race, like many famous race horses have done over the years without a jockey’s help? It’s no wonder Big Brown had the look of wrath in his eye as his jockey pulled him up with the rest of the field leaving him in the dust.
Big Brown may not have been able to win the Belmont—that we’ll never know. But it’s clear now that this is not a one-dimensional horse. Mr. Big has a mind all his own, and needs to be allowed to strategize his own game plan. He most certainly would not have finished last in the Black Belmont had it been left up to him. The Haskell proved that he’s got an iron will, a fierce fight in him to win, no matter the setup of the race.
He could have been our Triple Crown winner, but was robbed of the chance.