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Archive for Sunday, May 11, 2008

Big Brown preps for Preakness

Groom Herasmo Gonzalez gives Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown a bath Wednesday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

Groom Herasmo Gonzalez gives Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown a bath Wednesday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

May 11, 2008


— Big Brown slowed ever so slightly as he made his way to the track at Churchill Downs on Thursday morning.

The big bay colt turned his head to look behind him, only to see the usual batch of trainers, exercise riders and barn workers quietly muddling through the mist, caught up in their daily pre-dawn routines.

Big Brown waited for just a second, then followed good friend Cody - his stable pony - out to the track for a jog. Only then did it dawn on exercise rider Michelle Nevin what the big guy was up to.

"He was looking for the cameras, he wanted to pose," Nevin said.

But the paparazzi that followed the horse's every move in the days before his dominant 4 3/4-length victory in the Kentucky Derby are long gone. A sense of normalcy has returned to the backside, though Big Brown certainly won't lack for admirers when he arrives at Pimlico a few days before next Saturday's Preakness, the second leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown.

Until then, Big Brown will have to settle for spending most of his days hanging out inside Barn 22.

Not that he's complaining. As far as accommodations go, things could be worse.

There's plenty of room in stall 12 for him to take a nap, which is often. When he gets the munchies, there's a sack of hay hanging just outside the door on one side.

If he gets bored he can always start batting around the rubber ball that dangles ever so temptingly on the other.

Lonely? He can poke his head out and look over at neighbors Cody and Frost Giant.

If he can't sleep, he can always visit with Manny, the night watchman hired by trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. to make sure nobody tries to sneak into the barn. Two people had to be escorted away during Derby week after attempting to slide in through the back door.

"He's got it pretty good," said exercise rider Walter Blum Jr.

We should all be so lucky.

The days after the biggest victory of his young life have been filled with rest, relaxation and all the oats, hay and peppermints he wants.

Dutrow keeps a close eye on his sport's newest superstar, monitoring everything from his eating habits to his temperament.

Yet other than the blanket of roses draped delicately over the wall across from Big Brown's stall - the equine equivalent of a star on the dressing room door - there's no sign that he's coming off the most taxing race of his short career.

Dutrow didn't do anything out of the ordinary during Big Brown's post-Derby physical examination, even after the death of filly Eight Belles, who broke both of her front legs while galloping out after finishing second in the race.

"He's ready for anything," Dutrow said.

Including a run at history. After spending a few days mostly cooped up in his stall, Nevin said she could feel Big Brown itching to let it loose while jogging around the track Thursday.

"I kinda had to hold him back," she said.

Good luck with that. As relaxed as Big Brown appears in his stall, things change when he sees Nevin enter with the saddle in her hands.

"He just kind of blows up," Blum said. "He goes from a size 30 waist to a size 40 waist because he knows it's time to go."

While many high-profile thoroughbreds are skittish in the crowds, Big Brown seems perfectly at ease in the spotlight. He preened for the fans while being schooled in the paddock a few days before the Derby, and never got caught up in the chaos following his victory.

"He just knows how to handle himself," Nevin said. "He's got an air about him. He's a different kind of horse."

The only thing that bothers Big Brown, it seems, are flowers. Much like 2006 Derby winner Barbaro, Big Brown got fussy after winning the Florida Derby, shuffling around when organizers tried to hand him the blanket of purple orchids given to the winner.

When it came time to take photos in the winner's circle following the Derby, Dutrow bucked tradition by throwing the blanket of roses at Nevin and Blum rather than lay it over Big Brown's neck.

Nevin and Blum dutifully held the flowers for a moment, then dropped the blanket on the ground to join the party, leaving the most hallowed floral arrangement in sports laying on the infield for a few hours before it was rescued by a state trooper.

The blanket remains in pretty good shape, though Big Brown largely ignores the roses during his daily hot walks around the barn. He's more interested in getting his next treat. The sound of a candy wrapper crinkling is enough to get him to stop what he's doing and look over with his pleading brown eyes.

They're eyes Dutrow has a hard time denying. The trainer - who lived in a tack room at Aqueduct in New York earlier in his career - will spend several hours standing outside Big Brown's stall rubbing the horse's nose and handing him the mints he craves.

"I'd rather do that than be over at the hotel," Dutrow said. "He's cool. I like hanging out with him."

It's an entourage that will only get bigger if Big Brown takes another step toward the Triple Crown by winning the Preakness. If he does, the serenity surrounding his barn at Churchill Downs this week will give way to three weeks of madness at Belmont as he tries to become the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years.

It'll be no biggie for Big Brown. Horse racing's Next Top Model.


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