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Without Big Brown, it's a different pony show

October 14, 2008|Bill Dwyre

Hold your horses, folks.

Curlin versus Big Brown isn't going to happen.

Monday was supposed to bring news and drama in horse racing.

Little did we know.

On a day when the final hurdle seemed to be cleared for the long-awaited showdown here, there was an unexpected stumble in an unexpected place.

A perfectly healthy Big Brown, working out in the wee hours of the morning on grass at New York's Aqueduct Race Track, and looking not only fit but slightly majestic while doing so, struck his right front leg with his back leg and tore a four-inch piece of flesh off the back of his foot.

"I thought everything was fine. He looked great," said Michael Iavarone of IEAH Stables, co-owners of Big Brown. "I had my wife and kids there, watching with me. When the workout was over, I turned to my wife and said, 'Just one more big one.' "

That would be the Oct. 25 Breeders' Cup Classic, hereafter known as the Should-A-Been Showdown.

The gash in the back of Big Brown's foot will take more than a month to heal. The injury is not life-threatening, but dangerous, were infection to take place.

Big Brown's owners have a $50-million deal to deliver their horse to Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky by Dec. 31, where he will begin his stud career. Because there is not sufficient time for the horse to heal and race before then, his last competitive moment as a thoroughbred was his six-furlong work alongside stablemate Kip Deville on Monday morning.

The big story was supposed to be about 2,500 miles west, at Santa Anita Park, where the Breeders' Cup will be held this year and next and where Curlin was to be put through his paces one last time, before trainer Steve Asmussen and majority owner Jess Jackson decided whether the new synthetic surface was safe.

Curlin ran Monday alongside stablemate Hawaii Calls, and between the fourth and fifth races of the Columbus Day card. All seemed to go well, with a final decision for the Classic promised today.

But by the time Asmussen and Jackson met the press after Monday's afternoon workout, the question of the day had changed from "Will Curlin run?" to "Will horse racing ever catch a break?"

This was to be a super matchup, a modern-day Affirmed-Alydar. It was to call unprecedented attention to racing's biggest extravaganza, even if the public is unlikely to ever view the Breeders' Cup the same way it does the Triple Crown.

Curlin was the star of 2007, winning the Preakness and finishing in the money in the other two Triple Crown races, which included an epic battle with super filly Rags to Riches in the Belmont Stakes. Then, mostly because of the influence of Jackson, the founder of Kendall-Jackson winery and an advocate of racing longer rather than rushing to the breeding shed, Curlin continued as a 4-year-old.

Built around victories in the Dubai Cup and last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, Curlin became the highest money-winning horse in North America and the first to surpass $10 million in a career.

It was rare for a 4-year-old to still be around and running successfully enough to challenge the reigning 3-year-old, in this case Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown.

This was to pay off for the sport in a classic matchup in the $5-million Breeders' Cup feature.

Big Brown had committed early. Iavarone and his trainer, Rick Dutrow Jr., had talked a little trash, saying things such as, if Curlin didn't show for this one, they'd find a place for a match race.

Asmussen and Jackson had not responded in kind, and Iavarone said Monday that the trash-talking had been in fun and that he would wear a Curlin cap come Oct. 25.

"I'll send him one," Jackson said.

Now, this morning's announcement by Jackson, likely to be a go for Curlin, will move from Page 1 to Page 10. Casual fans who had started to pay attention to the Classic will go back to getting excited about Lakers exhibition games.

The Breeders' Cup people will do their best. The Curlin versus Big Brown posters will now be Curlin versus the World, a nod to the dozens of European horses likely to challenge in the Classic and other Breeders' Cup races.

While everybody admitted to huge disappointment and voiced empathy for Big Brown's injury and his connections' anguish, the stiff upper lips formed quickly.

Santa Anita officials pointed to good advance ticket sales for the Breeders' Cup and the general positive response to their new synthetic surface. Jackson said he felt bad for Big Brown and his people but said he was still excited about the race. Asmussen stressed how well their horse worked Monday and added how proud he was of the way "this horse has handled everything after he has won $10 million."

Greg Avioli, president and chief executive of the Breeders' Cup, admitted that fan and media interest for this race had been special, maybe unprecedented. But he added, "The Breeders' Cup races are remembered by who ran, not who didn't."

Not this time, Greg.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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