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Big Brown once was nothing special

The morning regimen at Eddie Woods Training Center seldom fluctuates.

Horses eat breakfast and work out on the tracks.

Big Brown went through the routine.

For six months, the bay colt by Grade III winner Boundary developed under the guidance of Woods and his staff at the 240-acre facility in Ocala.

He wasn't an extraordinary graduate.

Now he is the favorite to end a 30-year Triple Crown drought.

"The fact that he's almost (a) superstar, I can't tell you I ever expected that; no one ever can," said Woods, who moved into the training center eight years ago. "We had about 180 horses on the farm at the time. He was in the top end, but he didn't stand out."

Woods will be in New York on Saturday for his first Belmont Stakes, hoping to see the 3-year-old become the 12th Triple Crown winner in 89 years. Since Affirmed won it in 1978, 11 horses have arrived at Belmont Park with wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

"If the same horse shows up that showed up for the last two (races), they can't beat him," Woods said.

The 50-year-old Irishman, who moved to the United States in 1986, purchases yearlings, boards and trains them, and sells the horses at 2-year-old auctions for profit. He bought Big Brown for $60,000 at the 2006 Fasig-Tipton October yearling sale in Lexington, Ky., several miles from where the horse was foaled, Monticule Farm.

"There really weren't any weaknesses," said Woods, who has worked with two Eclipse Award winners, Midnite Lute (2007 male sprinter) and Left Bank (2002 older male), and Bushfire, the only filly to win the Ashland (Keeneland), Acorn (Belmont Park) and Mother Goose (Belmont Park).

"He was just a big, quiet horse, a very uncomplicated individual. He was very maneuverable," Woods said. "He's got speed, and he can sit out of it if you need him to. You can drive him like a car, almost — stop and go — whenever you feel like it."

Big Brown has shown that to owners International Equine Acquisitions Holdings Stables and Paul Pompa Jr., a New Yorker who purchased him from Woods at the 2007 Keeneland (Ky.) April sale for 2-year-olds in training for $190,000. Despite recurring foot issues, Big Brown is undefeated in five starts by a combined 39 lengths with lifetime earnings of $2,714,500.

Detractors of Big Brown can question the opposition's quality — 2-year-old champion War Pass has not raced in the Triple Crown series because of a leg fracture — but not its quantity. He has defeated 30 rivals (Gayego twice) in the Derby and Preakness under rider Kent Desormeaux. The past three Triple Crown winners didn't face as many foes in all three races: Affirmed had 20 in 1978, Seattle Slew 29 in '77, Secretariat 21 in '73.

Big Brown's times for the Derby (2 minutes, 1.82 seconds at 11/4 mile) and Preakness (1:54.80 at 13/16 mile) rank eighth among winners since 1990.

"The field only got weaker when he started to beat them; prior to that, they were superstars," Woods said. "I think the group he beat in the Preakness was a moderate bunch for a Grade I. I think there were some very good horses in the Derby, (like) Tale of Ekati and Denis of Cork. Several other horses didn't show up that will be back in the fall doing Haskell and Travers (stakes)."

A Big Brown trait is a white spot marking above his left front leg. "I can't tell you I've ever seen a thoroughbred with a spot in that exact spot," Woods said. "Some always look at the very good horses as having distinguishing features. I guess that's his."

Woods said he didn't think Big Brown would have problems with the Belmont distance, 11/2 mile. "Although the Boundary side of his pedigree says he's already gone too far, the dam side of his pedigree (Mien) gives him plenty of stamina. The shortest race he has run is 1 mile. He's never, ever looked like he's been coming to the end in any race."

His pedigree on both sides is related to Northern Dancer, an Eclipse Award winner who captured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1964.

"It would be a great shot in the arm for the industry to have a Triple Crown winner," Woods said. "I think what would be bigger would be — if this horse were fortunate to get through this thing and be the superstar that he is — for him to continue to run. You can't crown the king and then hide him. If he goes to the Breeders' Cup undefeated, he needs to run into Curlin. There has to be a toe-to-toe here and say how good either one is. It's that kind of thing that will help racing."

Once Big Brown's racing career is complete, he will stand at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky. The $50-million deal will put Big Brown at the same facility where Seattle Slew, the only undefeated Triple Crown winner, once resided.

"The horse was a career horse for what we do," Woods said. "We bought him to do a job; he did the job for us very well. And he's gone on to do the job for the next people exceptionally well.

"It's been thrilling so far. We might as well just put the crown on the cake."

One in 38,000

Big Brown was one of 38,191 registered thoroughbreds born in North America in 2005. That's 9,920 more than were registered in 1975, the year the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, was foaled. It's 32,372 more than the 1945 foal crop, which included Triple Crown winner Citation. And it's 36,063 more than the 1916 foal crop, which produced the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton.

Nine Triple Crown winners were bred by their owners. The exceptions are Sir Barton, purchased for $10,000 as a 2-year-old, and 1977 winner Seattle Slew, acquired for $17,000 at a yearling auction.

Since 1979, only two of the 10 horses that took the first two Triple Crown races but lost the Belmont were owned by their breeders.

Chicago Tribune

>>fast facts

Fasig-Tipton 2006 Kentucky yearling sale

Eddie Woods bought five horses, including his only purchase on Day 2, Big Brown, for $60,000:

Date head sold amount average not sold medium

10/23216 $3,017,800 $13,971 97 $7,000

10/24 215 $3,780,900 $17,586 91 $8,000

10/25 204 $2,948,300 $14,452 99 $6,500

Totals 635 $9,747,000 $15,350 287 $7,500

Big Brown once was nothing special 06/05/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2008 11:11pm]
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