If not for some luck, Big Brown might still be on turf

The smartest thing to do, Richard Dutrow Jr. figured, was to find a grass allowance race for his horse named Big Brown. After all, the colt had raced only on the turf and had a grass pedigree.

So Dutrow found a March 5 turf allowance at Gulfstream Park, which might just have been a springboard to stakes races you've probably never heard of, like the Palm Beach Stakes or the Hill Prince. And then it rained.

The March 5 race was taken off the grass, which might turn out to be the luckiest break Dutrow and his owners have ever had. Once a promising grass horse, Big Brown is suddenly, and from out of nowhere, a hot Kentucky Derby candidate.

In his second career start, he won the off-the-turf Gulfstream allowance by 12 3/4 lengths, completing the one mile in 1:35 3/5. His Beyer number was a 104, second best this year among all 3-year-olds and the best of any in a route race. He'll run next in the March 29 Florida Derby, where, you have to think, he has a big chance.

Last summer, no one could have figured that Big Brown would ever come close to the Kentucky Derby. His pedigree said all grass. He is by Boundary out of a Nureyev mare named Mien, who was eased the one time she tried dirt.

Then-trainer Pat Reynolds debuted Big Brown in a Sept. 3 maiden race on the grass at Saratoga and the colt who is, I assume, big and brown, won by 11 1/4 lengths. That race caught the eye of the team at IEAH, a racing partnership group, and it reached in and bought a piece of the horse and turned him over to Dutrow.

Dutrow was pointing Big Brown toward the Breeders' Cup's new 2-year-old grass race last fall but the colt developed foot problems. Since then, quarter cracks have been a recurring problem for Big Brown and the reason his 3-year-old debut was put off until early March. Leading up to the March 5 race, Dutrow was only able to give the colt a pair of short, easy works. For that reason, he wasn't expecting a big effort.

"That race took me by surprise because I felt I was rushing him into that race," Dutrow said. "I was in a zone when I knew he was in because I was afraid that he just might not be fit enough. We've been having troubles with these quarter cracks; we've been having to wait on them."

Now, with his horse having gotten through the dirt race, Dutrow is understandably excited about the Florida Derby. In fact, he has cancelled his plans to travel to Dubai to saddle two starters -- Benny the Bull and Diamond Stripes -- in the Dubai World Cup races. He can't bear to miss the Florida Derby.

"He only had three easy breezes and you saw what he did," the trainer said. "He needed that last race. Now, as long as he cooperates, I get to really train him up to a big race, which is something I haven't gotten to do."

Quarter cracks might not be his only problem. Big Brown will go into the Florida Derby having had only two career races. That makes him a lightly raced, inexperienced horse, exactly the type of horse that traditionally struggles in the Kentucky Derby. Dutrow isn't worried.

"I always think that talent is much more important than experience," he said. "I'd much rather have the talent than the experience. The other day, he was in between two other horses down the backside and (Kent) Desormeaux said he was perfectly comfortable with that. I'd much rather have a horse with a world of talent as opposed to a seasoned veteran who goes over the knocking hard all the time."

Should he run well in the Florida Derby, Big Brown will be on his way to the Kentucky Derby. In that case, his getting there will be a matter of talent and some remarkable good fortune.

"He didn't show any signs that he wouldn't run on the dirt," Dutrow said. "He showed us that he liked it. So when they took the race off the grass it wasn't really a big deal to us. I'm glad that they did because now we have Derby dreams. If they had kept it on the grass it might have been a different story. I have to say that we got very lucky."

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.