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Big Brown takes his next step

A grass win in New Jersey would set him up well for Breeders' Cup. Curlin's long-range plans unclear.

September 12, 2008|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

The Big Brown-versus-Curlin drama will begin to play out for horse racing fans in a somewhat untraditional scene Saturday at Monmouth Park.

Big Brown, the spectacular winner of this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness -- who was also a spectacular loser when he was pulled up on the final turn in the Belmont -- will be running on grass, in an ungraded, nine-furlong race called the Monmouth Stakes at the New Jersey track.

Because Big Brown is running, track officials upped the purse from $200,000 to $500,000. That pretty much translates to a made-for-Big-Brown horse race.

The people who handle Big Brown are quite open about what they are doing in this less-than-prestigious stop. Rick Dutrow Jr., the horse's trainer, likes his horse to run about 40 days before his next big race, and also likes the idea of Big Brown running this time on grass.

That brings the logical next step, the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic, which will be run Oct. 25 at Santa Anita, where horse racing's annual show of great horses and even greater purses will be held the next two years.

The 40-day prep is about right, and a trip on grass can be considered an excellent test for Santa Anita's new Pro-Ride synthetic surface. If Big Brown wins, he is in the Classic. Dutrow has said as much. Even a nice effort Saturday could be enough, although it seems clear that anything less than a win in a race staged for you would not be a good thing.

Assuming Big Brown's piece of the puzzle falls into place, the eyes of Breeders' Cup officials and race fans then turn to the Sept. 27 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, where 4-year-old star Curlin, last year's Preakness winner, will compete and attempt to win the Grade I race for the second consecutive year.

But even with a win there, the Breeders' Cup Classic showdown everybody lusts after, Big Brown versus Curlin, is not a sure thing. Curlin has already been there, done that, winning last year's Classic at Monmouth Park.

And Curlin's trainer, Steve Asmussen, is not a great fan of synthetic surfaces.

The wild card may be majority owner Jess Jackson, the billionaire founder of Kendall-Jackson Winery and a relative newcomer to the sport. Unlike most others in his sport, Jackson has not opted to take the big breeding profits and run after Curlin's 3-year-old season. He is a sportsman who likes the racing side of the sport, and his decision to keep Curlin running has created one of the bigger stars in years.

That, of course, does not guarantee a Curlin win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, nor a spot in the same starting gate as Big Brown come Breeders' Cup day. A win on Sept. 27 could also push Curlin past yet another landmark, the record $9.9 million in winnings of Cigar.

Curlin's winnings stand at $9.7 million. But even that may not dull Jackson's competitive edge for another Classic win and the additional $5 million that comes with it.

Big Brown boosted his purse total to $3,314,500 with an early August victory in the Haskell at Monmouth Park.

And if the Breeders' Cup dream matchup doesn't take place, there has been talk of a match race between the two sometime later in the fall, but most of that talk has come from Dutrow and the Big Brown side.

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bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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