Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Big Brown, pulled up by Kent Desormeaux, has been examined by veterinarians. “No one can figure this out,” his co-owner Michael Iavarone said.

Image: Barton Silverman, The New York Times [larger view].

I don’t know about you guys, but even though I have stated repeatedly that Big Brown is NOT a great horse, that he is simply one of a very poor crop of racehorses, I was very disturbed to see him struggling in the Belmont Stakes, and watching him fight jockey Kent Desormeaux as he was pulled up. So what happened to Big Brown this past Saturday, such that he lost the Belmont Stakes in such a spectacular fashion?

I think that Big Brown’s stunning loss was a combination of factors. First, as you recall, Big Brown is a very lightly raced horse. In total, he only had run five races during his short life, and he started the Belmont Stakes with only four previous races to his credit this year. In all his previous races, he had enjoyed extraordinarily good racing luck; he never started from an inside post position before; he never had a rough trip before; he never had dirt kicked into his face before. So basically, Big Brown had very little real racing experience to draw upon in the Belmont Stakes.

Second, Big Brown has suffered physical problems before — two quarter cracks in his front hooves kept him from racing for six months as a two-year-old. The fact that Big Brown raced on yet another quarter crack — a more serious injury than the bruised hoof that kept Casino Drive from running — is disturbing, to say the least. But Big Brown’s lack of physical durability is more than just a random flaw, it is due to breeding: a careful look at Big Brown’s pedigree reveals that his relatives ultimately were fragile horses. Both his mother and his father were lightly raced and were retired to the breeding shed after they sustained leg injuries. In fact, because Big Brown’s first race was run on grass — a much softer surface than dirt — one is tempted to surmise that this surface was specifically chosen to protect the horse’s unusually fragile feet and legs. Further, the additional physical stress of running the Triple Crown races during a five week period early in his life presented Big Brown with a serious test of his durability — something that his pedigree simply does not supply him with the ability to withstand.

Speaking of breeding, Big Brown’s pedigree is that of a sprinter, not a stayer, as one would expect for a horse running in the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes. For example, other racehorses sired by Big Brown’s father, Boundary, have demonstrated that they are fast, but are almost never capable of winning at distances longer than one mile. His mother’s side of the family have also demonstrated a similar lack of stamina. In contrast, the unbeaten (but also inexperienced) Casino Drive, who was scratched from the Belmont, was a serious contender at this distance because of his pedigree. Even though they each had different fathers, Casino Drive’s older sister, Rags to Riches, and brother, Jazil, each won the Belmont stakes in the previous two years, suggesting that Casino Drive might also be capable of the feat. So based on pedigree alone, Big Brown had no business being considered a serious contender in the Belmont Stakes.

The fact that Big Brown developed quarter crack might also have played a role in his loss. Even though his trainer, Rick Dutrow Jr., claimed that Big Brown’s three day layoff from training while his hoof was repaired had no effect on the horse’s performance, it is important to remember that Big brown was training for a race that was far longer than he’d ever run before, and also far longer than he was bred to run. So it is likely that this disruption to Big Brown’s training schedule did have an effect, even if that effect was only psychological rather than physical. And in a race such as the Belmont Stakes, psychological preparation also plays an important role in the outcome.

What about Big Brown’s human “team”? Did his trainer and his proclivity for drugs have anything to do with Big Brown’s loss? Even though Dutrow is widely recognized to be a smarmy person, I sincerely doubt that he had any effect upon Big Brown’s poor performance, especially when there were so many external factors that had a bigger influence than Dutrow. What about his jockey, Kent Desormeaux? I cannot say for sure, but I admit I was confused watching Desormeaux steering Big Brown all around the track as he looked for racing room — no doubt the horse was even more confused than I was, and he likely frustrated, too. But I doubt that Desormeaux’s inexplicably unprofessional actions actually cost Big Brown the Triple Crown — it wasn’t as though Big Brown was anywhere near the lead, unlike Real Quiet, who clearly lost the 1998 Triple Crown due to Desormeaux’s astonishing and inexcusable lack of professionalism.

In short, Big Brown’s inexperience and his lack breeding combined with his bad racing luck did not provide the horse with the necessary psychological and physical attributes to win the Triple Crown. Considering everything, I think that Desormeaux was correct to ease him up on the final turn instead of beating him up in the hopes that the horse might turn in a better performance. If Desormeaux had opted to beat Big Brown to force him to run faster, might he have caused the horse to injure himself further or to break down, as the gallant Eight Belles did a few weeks ago? In fact, considering everything, I think it is amazing that Big Brown has done as well as he has at distances beyond one mile.

Michael Iavarone said the stoppage of steroid use was not the reason for Big Brown’s showing. “He wasn’t on steroids for the Preakness,” he said.

Image: John Dunn, The New York Times [larger view].

Comments

  1. #1 HorsesArse
    June 9, 2008

    Nice armchair jockeying for a clue. That horse won the other two races hands down. You are simply stud fee envious.

  2. #2 Karl
    June 9, 2008

    Why is an inside post position bad?

  3. #3 "GrrlScientist"
    June 9, 2008

    ah, i should have explained that a little bit.

    an inside starting position is not necessarily bad, but it presents some challenges that big brown was apparently unable to cope with. the dirt is often deeper on the rail than further out on the track, which makes for slower going, and requires a different running style. not only that, but all the horses in the field crowd in towards the rail after the starting bell so they have a shorter distance to run than if they start further out on the track. if a horse starting from the number one hole doesn’t get out in front quickly, s/he can get boxed in, as big brown was, and end up suffering from flying dirt and hooves as s/he tries to find racing room (big brown didn’t like the flying dirt in his face and additionally, he was kicked in the chest early in the race when he ran up on another horse’s hooves).

  4. #4 MMOToole
    June 9, 2008

    Add to that the beastly weather in NYC this weekend, and he simply may have gotten overheated down the far stretch and been smart enough (as many horses aren’t) or felt lousy enough from the heat just to call it a day.

    You’re right in this, though: Thoroughbreds in this country have a problem, and the problem is the pressure on the breeders to produce speedy short-race horses that peak early and are retired to breeding young. We race teenagers here, and there are almost no “classic” races for mature horses (four year olds and up) any more. In Europe, they tend to race them older and longer, which means breeding for long-term soundness, including heavier bones. And Thoroughbreds by definition have an inbred gene pool.

    The Triple Crown is the equivalent of a human runner winning three 10K races in the same time frame. It can be done, but it takes an amazing athlete. Ironically, the last horse that didn’t win a Triple Crown who really might have been able to was Alydar.

  5. #5 randy
    June 10, 2008

    all I know is, there will never be another Secretariat

  6. #6 janet carney
    June 10, 2008

    Affirmed won ALL THREE AGAINST ALYDAR – IF HE WAS GOING TO WIN NOW ????/- NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO COMPARE HIM – HE HAD HIS MOMENT – as it turned out Alydar was better in the Breeding Shed-But Affirmed was and is THE cHAMPION AND BETTER COMPETITOR – YOUR COMMENT DOESN’T HOLD WATER-
    BIG BROWN IS THE ONLY HORSE – AND THE ONLY ONE THAT RACED ALL 3 !! OF THE LEGS OF THE RACE – COMPARE COMPARATIABLES !! PEOPLE KEEP COMPARING APPLES TO BURNT BEANS INSTEAD OF APPLES TO APPLES. HE OVERCAME THE JINX OUTSIDE POST AT THE DERBY- THE JINX OF TOO FEW OF RACES – AND HE WON IMPRESSIVELY IN THE PREAKNESS – TO TRY AND TAKE THAT AWAY BECAUSE OF STERIODS IN MONKEY POO ! HORSES RACE WITH BUTE, LASIX AND STERIODS – HE HADN’T HAD STERIODS SINCE APRIL 15 – SOMEONE NEEDS TO BE IN CRAZY IN THE HEAD TO SAY HE ISN’T A GREAT HORSE – THAT’S INSULTING TO THE OTHER 17 IN THE DERBY -INCLUDING EIGHT BELLES – PEOPLE -ESP. THE GENERAL PUBLIC WHOM NEVER RACED A HORSE JUST DON’T AND WON’T GET IT – FAIR WEATHER FRIENDS -WHAT HAPPENED ? HE WAS FREAKEN TIRED – HE’S A YOUNG ATHELETE THAT GOT BEAT UP BUT THE GRUELING SCHEDULE – TOOMUCH MEDIA BUZZ AND A HOT SULTRY NY DAY – TELL ME ANOTHER SAD STORY – LOOK UP SPECTACULAR BIDS RECORD – HE FAILED IN THE BELMONT AND WENT ON WIN TRAVERS -HORSE OF THE YEAR – AND THE LIST GOES ON – IF YOU ARE REALLY INTERSTED CHECK OUT FINDING DULCINEA -THE TEST OF CHAMPIONS – IT COMPARES ALL THE WEIRD STRANGE STORYS FROM THE TEST-THE CHALLENGES – AND FAILED ATTEMPTS TO WIN THE TRIPLE CROWN ! TRUE FACTS – NOT SPEC-U-LATION MY MONEY IS ON BIG BROWN TO DEVELOP INTO A CHAMPION 4 YEAR OLD —IF HIS OWNERS LET HIM—– JC

  7. #7 cephyn
    June 10, 2008

    Janet, looks like your caps lock key is stuck. And your “.” button keeps typing out a “-” — may want to look into that.

  8. #8 Bob
    June 10, 2008

    -TOOMUCH MEDIA BUZZ…

    I think Janet has nailed it. Never let your horse read the sports page before a big race. Just give him the Style section to calm his nerves.

  9. #9 The Ridger
    June 10, 2008

    He’s not a great horse. His times are not great, just good. I think the distance and the track and the post position had a lot to do with it, but that horse just flat quit. When Desormeaux asked him to run, he wouldn’t. Why? We’ll never know – unlike a human he can’t give us his excuses. And he’ll likely never race again – certainly won’t as a four-year-old. Not with all that money already paid out for him. Instead, he’ll go on to sire more horses just like himself.

  10. #10 The Ridger
    June 10, 2008

    And before anybody says “He ran fast enough to win”, remember Secretariat. He didn’t win by “enough” – he won by 31 lengths. That’s greatness.

  11. #11 Tina Rhea
    June 10, 2008

    I was impressed by Big Brown’s acceleration in the stretch at the Preakness, but I was afraid that he would win the Triple Crown and become a highly sought-after stallion who would probably sire a lot more horses with bad feet. Since the 1970′s Thoroughbreds, at least in this country, have become porcelain dolls running on numerous drugs, racing seldom, and too often becoming tragic victims of a quick-buck industry. They used to be raced by the farms that bred them, like Calumet, who had an interest in keeping them strong and sound. Now only money talks and the horses, and the sport, suffer.

  12. #12 Paula Higgins
    June 10, 2008

    This was a good article. Big Brown is a very good horse, possibly a great horse, with or without Winstrol (I would bet money all the horses that were racing during the Derby and Preakness had steroids onboard so it was a level playing field). No he isn’t Secretariat, but that’s a really ridiculous standard to hold him up to. His time during the Derby if you factor his post position in, is amazing. He was held up during the Preakness to save him for the Belmont. So his times probably don’t reflect his potential. I believe his lack of training running up to the Belmont, the heat, his lack of experience, possibly being off the Winstrol (he would have been experiencing a letdown beyond his normal unenhanced condition at about this time) all contributed to his race. But I think all of this could have been overcome so that he would have run a good race, even if he didn’t actually win, if he had been allowed to run straight out of the gate. Desormeau should have just let him rip. Having said that, I feel bad for Desormeau. He got boxed in and he was trying to run on the outside again like he did in the Preakness. The problem was that the horse got confused as he was trying to accomplish that. You know not winning the Triple Crown is o.k. No one died. All I can say is that everyone posting here wishes we had a horse who had just won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. We need to be thankful for two great horse and fine jockey and quit complaining.

  13. #13 Firebyrd
    June 11, 2008

    I really know nothing about real-world racing (though I devoured the Black Stallion books as a kid), but I find it really disturbing that using steroids on the horses is apparently par for the course. That right there (plus everything else discussed with poor breeding and such) really shows how bad a business this is. Poor horses.

  14. #14 Luna_the_cat
    June 12, 2008

    What *I* find disturbing is that America apparently finds it absolutely acceptable to race a frickin’ 2-year-old on a dirt track in high stakes, full-handicap races.

    That is not a horse-lovers’ decision; this is a fucking business decision, to get as much return on investment as fast as possible, and screw the horse’s long-term health. Please pardon the obscenity, but the behavior in question is obscene. A horse’s skeletal growth plates do not finish closing until age three; to race them with full handicapping on a dirt track (which is harder, and thus “faster” than a grass track — hey, it’s to please the crowd) a year before their skeleton is fully mature, under full weight, leaves you with, ultimately, permanently crippled horses who suffer almost inevitable skeletal degradation and pain in their later years if they are allowed to live that long. It’s fucking barbaric.

    The US is the only country in the world, so far as I know, to treat its horse racing “industry” in such an industrial fashion — which is why you can still find 8-12 year olds racing in the UK, whereas in America that is unheard of. Horses over here are still fit and fast at age 8; in the US the majority are too crippled to run by age 6, and if they aren’t good enough to be sold or kept for breeding they are killed there or sold to Japan or France for food, to the tune of over 60,000 horses per year.

    A thoroughbred’s natural lifespan ought to be 20-22 years. To have that cut to 5 or 6, frequently involving serious injury, because they aren’t left to grow up is hardly a decision geared towards animal welfare. This kind of treatment of valuable animals disgusts me; but it is the American profit model of maximum profit in minimum time.

  15. #15 Sandy
    June 15, 2008

    I really don’t know anything about horse racing, but it sounds like it is mostly about making money at the expense of the horse.

    I hope it won’t get as bad as Greyhound racing where the animals are simply disposable.

    It is true that thousands of horses from the USA are auctioned and sold as meat to foreign countries each year. They include previously owned “pets” and thoroughbreds.