While Big Brown, the Bay Colt who took the first two legs of this year's Triple Crown, grazes, Rick Dutrow, his trainer, gazes. The horse is relaxing in a stall at Belmont Park, gnawing some hay. "When I look at him, I see a horse that's as cool and as calm as can be," says Dutrow, who has escaped the depths of addiction and gone on to train a Thoroughbred who might be the best in a generation. "He moves me." Dutrow points out Big Brown's birthmark, a rare speck of white fuzz above his front left leg, and lovingly strokes his right ear. "He acts like he's one of us," Dutrow says. "Like he wants to be one of us."
Horsemen love hyperbole and ascribing human traits to their beloved breed. But Dutrow's not the only one falling for Big Brown. The colt cruised to a 4 3/4-length win in the Kentucky Derby and so overpowered the Preakness field that jockey Kent Desormeaux eased him across the finish. Big Brown will be the heavy favorite to win the Belmont Stakes on June 7 in Elmont, N.Y., a Long Island town that borders New York City. If he does, Big Brown would become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed took that title 30 years ago.
After Eight Belles, a filly, was injured in the Derby and euthanized on the track, racing needs a feel-good equine story in the worst way. "He's got the size, the mentality, the stride and acceleration," says Angel Cordero, one of the best jocks of all time. "He's like a car--he comes with everything. Just step on it, and you're there."
The most impressive part of his engine is an unmatched second gear. In the Preakness, he hung with leaders until the far turn. Then, with little prodding from Desormeaux, he glided past everyone down the stretch. "It's very unusual to have a horse who can do that," says Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger. "He doesn't really hit overdrive; he just moves away." Big Brown's knack for controlling a race has Nafzger comparing the laid-back colt to Seattle Slew, the legendary horse who won the Triple Crown in 1977. No one saw this coming; Big Brown sold for just $190,000 as a 2-year-old, and before the Derby, he had run only three races in his career. (He won them all, of course.)
The oddball cast of humans supporting Big Brown makes the horse's rise more Guys and Dolls than Kentucky blue blood. They're fast-talking New Yorkers. Besides Dutrow, an ex-addict who was once so down and out that he lived in a racetrack barn, take Michael Iavarone, 37, Big Brown's majority owner. An ex--Wall Street banker and Long Island native who left the rat race for horse-racing, Iavarone and his partners arranged to buy control of Big Brown for $2.5 million in September, after watching him race once--once--on TV. "We put our balls on the line," he says proudly. The brash owner is even starting a horse hedge fund, allowing private investors to buy into his portfolio of Thoroughbreds and sell out at a handsome profit if they succeed. Or lose it all. "My confidence is sky-high right now," he says.
Iavarone bought his piece of the horse from Paul Pompa, a New Jersey guy who runs a Brooklyn trucking company. Pompa was offered some $1.5 million extra for Big Brown from the stable run by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, who doubles as the most powerful man in horse-racing. No one says no to the Sheik. But Pompa did, because he wanted to keep a 25% share in Big Brown. Before the Preakness, venerable Kentucky stud farm Three Chimneys bought Big Brown's breeding rights for upwards of $50 million, putting at least $12.5 million in Pompa's pocket. "That was a good move by me, eh?" he says. Pompa, 49, also gave the horse his name--Big Brown is a salute to UPS, the package-delivery outfit--after the company renewed a contract with Pompa's trucking business.
The team entrusted Big Brown to jockey Desormeaux, a Hall of Famer who moved his family from California to New York a couple of years ago because he got fed up with losing out West. Though he had already won two Derbys, the last in 2000, Desormeaux was supposed to be history. Now he's primed for the Triple Crown and inspiring fans in the process. Desormeaux, 38, balances racing with raising son Jacob, 9, who suffers from Usher syndrome, a disease that causes deafness and a gradual loss of vision. Jacob has lived through 11 surgeries. "He's the happiest boy on earth," says Desormeaux. "The only people who are sad right now are his parents and the people who love him."
You can call Desormeaux a role model. That term would not apply to Dutrow. He remembers mixing cocaine and quaaludes one night in the 1980s and getting into his car. Luckily, he woke up on the side of the road, unharmed. "A miracle," he says. He was a reckless gambler, once betting $160,000 on a horse. He won that one, but he remembers losing a few $50,000 bets. Why risk so much? "'Cause I'm an idiot," he says. "Come on, man."
He was suspended from New York tracks for five years because he tested positive for marijuana. A decade ago, Dutrow, now 48, was flat broke and living in a barn at a Queens racetrack. He had the essentials--a fridge, a telephone, a television--but he had to shower in another barn. ("Dirty floors, no water pressure, but it cleaned you up.")
Dutrow, whose father was a respected trainer, cleaned up his life to get back in the races. He's handled Big Brown with care and become a doting father to his 13-year-old daughter. But his detox has still left him a few furlongs short of redemption. His racing rap sheet is as long as Big Brown's stride. He's been suspended several times over the past few years for everything from overmedicating his horses to giving them banned substances and even for falsifying a workout report. Hey, nobody's perfect.
Plus, political correctness isn't his forte. Dutrow, who calls everyone he meets "babe," insisted that his time spent as barn owl wasn't lonely. "Pretty soon I had broads running in and out of the place," he says. When asked about Casino Drive, a horse from Japan who has emerged as a possible threat to Big Brown's Crown bid, Dutrow says he would tell his jockey "to find Yamamoto," referring to the Japanese admiral who conceived the Pearl Harbor attack, "and chew his ass."
At least his horse has style, although the sport's chattering class is starting to wonder if Big Brown has trampled weak competition. Even Dutrow admits that other horses "aren't showing up." It's a legitimate argument, but "when a horse does it, don't knock him," says Nafzger. "Enjoy him. He's a beautiful animal."