Extended (LP) column version

Tomorrow’s column tonight. Occasionally I’ll go ahead and throw tomorrow’s column on the blog. Tonight something different. C-J sports columns generally run about 550 words. To get to that length, though, often I’ll write more, then start paring down and condensing until it fits the space. It’s one way of working through my thoughts.

Today, I wrote a column looking at all the dirt around Big Brown’s connections, and pointing out that if he wins tomorrow, the spotlight shifts from the humans to the horse. The column in tomorrow’s paper is this column, just distilled and quite a bit shorter.

Tonight, the expanded edition.

Shady team shouldn’t dim Big Brown’s day

ELMONT, N.Y. — Sleaze? Please.

Today, if Big Brown wins the Triple Crown, it’ll be about the horse.

There’s speculation that Big Brown’s shady connections might take some of the shine off the first Triple Crown in 30 years, if it happens.

But I’ve got some advice for the horse racing world if Big Brown crosses the finish line first today: Don’t look this gift horse in the mouth, or the big mouth of his trainer.

Yes, Rick Dutrow Jr.’s horses have more drug-related incidents than Robert Downey Jr.

Yes, according to published reports Michael Iavarone, co-founder of the company that owns Big Brown, was suspended on Wall Street for trading stocks without client approval; was sued by the Keeneland Association for buying horses but not paying for them (he settled); was pursued by the IRS for $130,000 in unpaid taxes (he paid).

And just how warm can anybody feel toward an ownership group with a sinister-sounding Orwellian name like “International Equine Acquisitions Holdings,” a group that aspires to dominate the sport by buying talented racers from a horse racing hedge fund?

This past Wednesday, the news ticker on ESPN’s Times Square location read: Dutrow says Big Brown to run Belmont without steroids.

I wonder if they blared that before the Preakness, too? Dutrow said Big Brown hasn’t received a steroid since April 15. And, to be accurate, it’s not “steroids,” but a single steroid, Winstrol, which trainers give horses in smaller amounts than even human athletes use (illegally) because it seems to make the horses eat better.

But the steroid issue is there, and though equine use is allowed by both racing rules and the law, some wonder if that might dampen enthusiasm for Big Brown’s potential achievement, or cheapen it entirely.

Then there’s the question of Big Brown’s future. Despite Iavarone’s insistence to the contrary, some doubt whether the colt would ever race again after a Belmont win, and still others, myself included, say that by retiring at three, the sport would be deprived of the full benefit of his achievement and the horse deprived of a chance to measure his true greatness.

All of these concerns are reasonable. But they are also not particularly new.

Louis Wolfson, owner of the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, served a year in federal prison for illegal stock sales, perjury and obstruction of justice. But his transgressions have no part in the memory of Affirmed’s accomplishments.

This week, Bob Baffert noted that when he came to the Belmont with Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Real Quiet, some in the sport were up in arms about the possibility that this $17,000 colt with an owner, Mike Pegram, who drank and partied a little more — all right, a lot more — than the industry standard was poised to crash the Triple Crown’s noble ranks.

Some people wondered what business a former airline stewardess who had been involved in owning horses only four years (Karen Taylor) had owning a horse like Seattle Slew.

The sport of kings, it seems, can look down its nose at anybody.

Dutrow is what he is. He’s also been fairly candid about his past and, well, everything else during this run. Question: Did having Dutrow as a trainer diminish Saint Liam’s accomplishments? I can’t see where it did.

The reigning Eclipse Award winner for 3-year-old male horse was owned by two Kentucky lawyers doing time for defrauding clients of $65 million and trained by a man with his own high-profile doping rap sheet. But Curlin has become a respected veteran, and in fact an example of what a modern 3-year-old star can accomplish should he continue to race.

I know the Triple Crown is something different. But while owners and trainers may have begun claiming a higher profile in the three decades since the feat was last accomplished, in the end, the brightest star in any Triple Crown remains the horse.

Certainly, that star has less chance to brighten if the horse retires after his 3-year-old season. But that would hardly be a new thing for a Triple Crown winner.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that the great Secretariat was retired to stud after his 3-year-old season not by some international conglomerate, but by Claiborne Farm, which arranged the syndication of his breeding rights for a then-record $6.08 million after his championship 2-year-old year. Not only that, but the farm announced he would be retired after his 3-year-old campaign before he ever raced as a 3-year-old.

(Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery, needing to pay estate taxes after the death of her father, reluctantly entered the agreement. And Secretariat did race six times after winning the Triple Crown, but the seed for future early retirements was planted.)

Some say the “racing gods” would not allow a group like Big Brown’s to win the Triple Crown. After watching this sport the past decade, I’m starting to wonder if the racing gods don’t actually prefer the slots.

Could it have been much better than Barbaro, the well-bred colt owned by Roy and Gretchen Jackson and trained by Michael Matz? Class all around. Same for the connections of Afleet Alex. Smarty Jones would’ve been a made-for-Hollywood story.

Who merited a Triple Crown more than Bob and Beverly Lewis, yet they came close and fell short twice with Charismatic and Silver Charm.

Good karma, obviously, is no prerequisite to a Triple Crown. Storylines are irrelevant at the finish line.

Should he win, Big Brown would’ve won the Derby from the No. 20 hole and the Belmont from the rail. With a quarter crack. He is a charismatic animal, if such things are possible. He’s alert and attentive, ears ever pricked with interest for what’s going on around him. (Blogging for The New York Times, raci
ng writer Michelle McDonald eloquently compares him with 1967 horse of the year Damascus, who appears on both sides of Big Brown’s bloodlines.)

Even his foot problems, some research shows, wouldn’t be unique to Triple Crown winners. The very first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton, had notoriously soft hooves and often lost his shoes during races. His feet were chronically sore, and often he had piano felt inserted between his hooves and shoes to try to soften the pounding. After winning the Triple Crown races (not then known as the Triple Crown), Sir Barton lost to the legendary Man o’ War by seven lengths in a match race, retired, and spent most of the rest of his life in obscurity.

There’s not much Big Brown can do about the humans around him. The most you can say for him is that despite the dirt that has been dug up on his human handlers, he has a chance at a clean sweep.

As folks on any horse farm in Kentucky will tell you, if all the people were as good as all the horses, we’d have no problems.

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