Yesterday, Derby/Preakness winner Big Brown returned to the races for the first time since his Belmont debacle in New Jersey's signature race, the Haskell Invitational. Bet down to 1-5 odds, if you polled the crowd as to what would have happened during the race, you would have probably gotten two responses:
(1) Big Brown romps over a hideous field and wins by daylight.
(2) Big Brown is still injured, jinxed or feeling the effects of being off steroids and will run up the track.
Conventional wisdom, once again, was dead wrong. Big Brown was forwardly placed early, running second to the 20-1 longshot and horribly named Coal Play, trained by Nick Zito of Da'Tara fame. After 7 furlongs, Coal Play wasn't coming back to the back, he was opening up on Big Brown! Big Brown, after a fair amount of urging and whipping by jockey Kent Desormeaux, finally found the next gear in the final furlong, and eventually dug past Coal Play to win by a length and a half. (For a replay, see the Form's link here.)
The immediate reaction by myself and many others was to be unimpressed. This horse had toyed with rivals in the Derby and Preakness, and now he had trouble beating Coal Play, who had never won a stakes race? It looked like this may be his last race. However, a day later and with the benefit of knowing that he ran a 106 Gowanus Speed Figure (not great, not awful), perhaps we haven't seen the last of Big Brown after all. The question is, what next?
To figure out what comes next, it's worth asking what is to be gained by continuing to run Big Brown. It's unlikely he's going to be crowned an immortal at this point, barring him breaking track records for the rest of his (brief) career. At the same time, he's already wrapped up the Eclipse award for 3-year old colt of the year. The only prize left to shoot for is Horse of the Year, a race in which he's probably behind Curlin, and possibly behind undefeated filly Zenyatta. Okay. So how does he get to Horse of the Year?
For starters, the connections must forget about running in the Travers or any other race against 3 year olds only. There's absolutely no upside to those races, as he'll either simply re-beat the same 3yos he's dominated most of the year, or worse, lose to some longshot, leading not only losing the HOTY race but also stud value. If IEAH and Dutrow are thinking in terms of awards, they'll pass on the Travers, Pennsylvania Derby, Super Derby, etc., and focus on beating older horses.
They also should forget about returning Big Brown to the turf. I mean, what would it prove if he beat a 3yo turf horse like Tizdejavu or a turf colt like Einstein? Who cares?
No, the truth is he has to go after the two big handicap horses that are out there: defending HOTY Curlin and speedy gelding Commentator, who just won the Whitney. The latter is being pointed to September's MassCap, and Curlin's plans should be announced soon. Big Brown should point for either the MassCap or whatever Curlin runs in. That's more important than the Travers. Hell, that's more important than the Breeders Cup, which neither Curlin nor Commentator are pointing towards because of a synthetic surface. Beating Tiago and Well Armed in that race will prove nothing.
If you want to be the best, you need to beat the best. Here's to hoping that we get a race with Big Brown, Commentator and Curlin together, which would be as fun as anything we've seen recently.