Commentary

Big Brown vs. Greatness

Updated: June 5, 2008, 12:02 PM ET
By Ray Paulick | Special to ESPN.com

Big Brown
Horsephotos.comKentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown is unlikely to race as a 4-year-old.
In horse racing and other sports there is a tendency to confuse money with greatness.

Jason Giambi was the second-highest paid player in the Major Leagues in 2007, getting $23 million from the New York Yankees but finishing the year with a pitiful .236 batting average and only 14 home runs. Apparently, when his numbers were better (and weren't nearly everyone's in the steroid era), there was enough demand among team owners to prompt the Yankees to sign Giambi to a long-term contract with such a lofty annual salary.

Same goes for Big Brown, whose coronation as racing's 12th Triple Crown winner is greatly anticipated and highly expected this Saturday at Belmont Park on New York's Long Island. Like Giambi, Big Brown was a hot young prospect and in great demand from the outset of his career. There was a bidding war for his services, with the IEAH stable winning out over other suitors after Big Brown won his first race last September at Saratoga. After he reached racing's major leagues, winning the Florida Derby, several of the deep-pocketed stud farms in Kentucky stepped up the competition for Big Brown's post-racing services, and it reached a fever pitch when the colt romped to victory in the Kentucky Derby in only his fourth career start.

Before he won the Triple Crown's middle jewel, the Preakness, Big Brown was signed to a multi-year contract with Three Chimneys Farm of Midway, Ky., one valued at between $50 million and $65 million, according to sources. The deal makes Big Brown one of the highest-paid four-legged athletes in history, joining a club that includes Conquistador Cielo, Devil's Bag, Fusaichi Pegasus, Point Given, Shareef Dancer, Smarty Jones and Street Sense -- all of which were signed to record or near-record stud deals worth tens of millions of dollars and were retired from racing as 3-year-olds.

As stallions, none of those high-priced horses would be called great. They never reached the expectations set for them by their stud value at retirement (though it's too early to tell with Smarty Jones and Street Sense). Yet their relative failure hasn't slowed the appetite of stallion farms to go after these young prospects and retire them to stud at inflated values before they've really had the opportunity to prove themselves on the racetrack.

In that regard, 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin is something of a throwback to yesteryear. Like Big Brown, he was lightly raced prior to the Triple Crown, but he proved to be the best of his generation with victories in the Arkansas Derby and Preakness, a good third in the Kentucky Derby, and a narrow loss to the filly Rags to Riches in the Belmont. Curlin then stepped out of his division to beat older runners (and fellow 3-year-olds) in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic.

Principal owner Jess Jackson kept Curlin in training as a 4-year-old, and that decision was rewarded when Curlin won the Dubai World Cup. He is expected to make his American return from that race June 14 in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Big Brown won't race as a 4-year-old, following the path set by 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat. But Secretariat did take on his elders in the autumn of his 3-year-old season, losing twice in the Whitney Handicap and Woodward but winning the Marlboro Cup Handicap, the Man o' War and Canadian International.

Seattle Slew
Horsephotos.comSeattle Slew had an outstanding 4-year-old campaign following his Triple Crown victory.
Seattle Slew didn't race in the fall of 1977 after winning that year's Triple Crown, but he had an outstanding 4-year-old campaign, including a memorable victory over 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed in the Marlboro Cup.

Affirmed's 4-year-old season was an exciting one that confirmed his greatness. Spectacular Bid, who lost the 1979 Triple Crown, raced against older horses that fall, winning the Marlboro Cup and losing a duel with Affirmed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. In his perfect, nine-for-nine season of 1980, Spectacular Bid became the best racehorse I've seen in my lifetime.

The sport needs its best 3-year-olds to race against older horses in the fall, and to also compete as 4-year-olds. Breeders who are shaping the future quality of the Thoroughbred breed also need those young horses to prove themselves beyond the Triple Crown. Racing needs to see Big Brown and Curlin on the track together, looking each in the other eye, as Seattle Slew did with Affirmed, and Affirmed did with Spectacular Bid.

The Breeders' Cup Classic is the natural vehicle for such a match-up, but it's not the only one. There are other races, including the Jockey Club Gold Cup, that could serve up the race that fans and the breeding industry deserve. If not the Gold Cup, some enterprising racetrack owner should come up with a special race and put up a huge purse to make it happen.

It's an opportunity neither the sport nor the breed can afford to miss. Racing doesn't need to produce any more Jason Giambis.

Ray Paulick is a Lexington, Ky.-based journalist who served as editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse from 1992 to 2007. Over the past 25 years he has covered thoroughbred racing, breeding and sales on six continents and more than a dozen countries and appeared on numerous television and radio news programs offering his expertise on the industry. Contact Ray at raypaulick@gmail.com.