It did not take long yesterday for the formal confirmation of Zarkava's retirement to be placed in rather unbecoming perspective. For while it was universally expected that her owner, the Aga Khan, would decline to set his unbeaten filly any new challenges, at least he had been in a position to choose. And that was more than can be said for the connections of Big Brown.
The Kentucky Derby winner's career came to an abrupt end in New York yesterday morning after he suffered an injury in the course of his preparations for a titanic showdown with Curlin in the Breeders' Cup Classic. His withdrawal not only created a dispiriting void at Santa Anita on Saturday week, but offered an immediate reproof to the sort of thinking that has now concluded the public adventures of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner. Call it complacent, call it timid, the decision to wrap up Zarkava – after precisely one race away from Longchamp, up the road at Chantilly, and precisely one race against males – hardly qualifies as gathering rosebuds while ye may.
On the other hand, it might well be argued that random misadventures of the type that snared Big Brown could easily supervene had Zarkava, say, proceeded to the Breeders' Cup herself. With some injuries, after all, it might not just be a racing career at stake, but also a breeding one – and the Aga Khan, to whom her genes are now beyond price, might on that account be allowed whatever caution he feels necessary.
Big Brown had worked on turf at Aqueduct, in the company of Kip Deville, winner of the Breeders' Cup Mile last year. It took them 73 seconds to finish six furlongs upsides. The various horsemen whose lives have been changed by his emergence over the past year were delighted with what they saw. California, here they came.
But on pulling up it was discovered that the colt had "grabbed a quarter" on his right front foot. In effect, he had ripped out a chunk of the hoof. Rick Dutrow, his trainer, immediately acknowledged that Big Brown could not reasonably be expected to heal in just 12 days. Michael Iavarone, one of his owners, had been present to watch the work and promptly confirmed the colt's retirement. "He not only tore the bulb off his foot, half the foot was torn off," he told The Blood Horse. "We did everything we could to get to the Breeders' Cup. It's devastating. And what makes it even worse is that he worked great."
It had already been settled that Big Brown would stand next year at Three Chimneys Farm, in Kentucky. In some ways, this premature end to his story is poignantly consistent with its equivocal texture. Even in his pomp, when coasting through the first two legs of the Triple Crown, he had forfeited much public affection because of the way his trainer conducted himself. Whether arrogant, or simply reckless in his candour, Dutrow proved too graceless for many tastes and was never going to be indulged a long history of drug violations – both on two legs and four. When Big Brown ran so deplorably in the Belmont Stakes, pulled up in despair by his jockey, dismay was by no means universal.
In fairness, his connections exculpated themselves by a willingness to persevere to the Breeders' Cup. Many expected Big Brown to be cynically retired after the Belmont, but he resurfaced to win two more races at Monmouth, and his scheduled clash with Curlin, the champion older horse, was dominating the Breeders' Cup build-up.
The hazards of honing the thoroughbred had been reiterated, even before the shocking news from America, by the retirement of Phoenix Tower, a Group One runner-up in his last four starts and one of the favourites for the Emirates Airline Champion Stakes. He banged a tendon over the weekend and a scan yesterday implied an unacceptable risk in letting him line up at Newmarket on Saturday.
In his absence the race barely measures up, in either quantity or quality. Of the dozen acceptors only New Approach, the Derby winner, brings authentic prestige. He is 5-4 favourite with Coral, from the French raider Russian Cross on 9-2, and Phoenix Tower's stablemate Twice Over on 13-2.
With Aidan O'Brien concentrating on Santa Anita, only the outsider Hebridean represents Ballydoyle, but no fewer than eight of the stable's juveniles remain in the Darley Dewhurst Stakes on the same card – notably Rip Van Winkle.
Matters are complicated by the presence of Bushranger, a dual Group One winner in the same Coolmore ownership, though his trainer, David Wachman, is himself pondering the Breeders' Cup as an alternative. But then chronicles like yesterday's make it hard for anyone to plan beyond one day at a time.
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