Brown Looking to Close the Circle in the Kentucky Derby

Chad Brown | Adam Coglianese

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LOUISVILLE, KY–Chad Brown certainly knows how to win. He wins with favorites, and he wins with longshots. Although these days, more of his horses likely fall in the former category rather than the latter. However, despite all the trips to the winner's circle throughout his 17-year career–and there have been many–the Kentucky Derby has eluded him. In seven prior attempts, Brown recorded his best finish with Good Magic in 2018. And while the first jewel in the American Triple Crown hasn't always been Brown's main objective, it certainly is beginning to feel like an aberration in its absence.

“I liken winning the derby to landing a big aircraft in a rainstorm,” he opined. “You're making your approach, and you better have a steady hand. Everything has to be in place. You have to really focus on landing it the right way. You know the date you're running, and you've dealt with the checkpoints you need to go through. You are trying to get through each checkpoint safely to land.”

He continued, “The landing might be winning the race or losing the race, but everything in the process would have to go smoothly even if you weren't good enough. If you miss one of those checkpoints along the way, it'll probably be a rough landing. Maybe the last work doesn't go right or the weather is bad. Maybe the post goes wrong or there is a physical problem. All these things can prevent you from a clean landing.”

When the horses line up in the gate, two of the 20 jumbo jets running in this year's derby will be representing Brown. The more fancied of the two, Sierra Leone (Gun Runner), has everything you can ask for in a potential Classic winner.

A $2.3 million Fasig-Tipton Saratoga purchase, the colt is campaigned by several of the sport's most influential owners–Peter Brant, Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, Michael Kuessner's Westerberg Limited and Brook Smith. A winner of three of four lifetime starts, including the GII Risen Star S. and GI Blue Grass S., the colt has earned just under $1 million. Flying somewhat under the radar despite his win in the GIII Tampa Derby in March, Domestic Product (Practical Joke) may not have the flash as his more exalted stablemate, but the Klaravich Stables' homebred certainly has shown that he belongs with the big boys.

“Sierra Leone won [the Blue Grass] on a speed-favoring track,” reminded Brown. “The track all day had been playing that way and he came from nine lengths back. That was a pretty impressive performance.”

As for the race itself, Sierra Leone has drawn the two-hole, while Domestic Product will exit post 15. The former will be reunited with Tyler Gaffalione, while the latter will be accompanied by Irad Ortiz Jr.

“I like where my horses are drawn,” said Brown. “I want to save ground with Sierra Leone and not be wide in that first turn and an inside post with a closer does that. I also like Domestic Product's post because he can, hopefully, move out and over and pop in with the second flight.”

In addition to this year's derby starters, Brown will also be represented Friday's Kentucky Oaks with Ways and Means (Practical Joke) and Regulatory Risk (Omaha Beach).

 

Framing a Derby Winner

Brown, who is affiliated with several owners that are astutely involved in the art world, likens the process of molding a Classic winner like that of crafting a masterpiece.

“Getting to the Derby is a long-term play,” he said. “Ultimately, only 20 horses will get into the starting gate. We have turf horses, we have female horses, and we also have a lot of sprinters. So just like painting, you are going to go through a lot of canvas as you narrow things down.”

Domestic Product | Horsephotos

“You might look at one painting and it's just ok. You'll look at another and decide to throw that one out. You might find one that has potential, so you decide to keep going with it. By the time you have your studio really going, you only have a few paintings left with some real potential. You have to be careful that once you have one with potential, you are careful not to f*** it up because once the paint is on there, you can't remove it. Sometimes you'll end up with paintings that are thrown away, or they'll end up in secondary galleries. Basically, they didn't quite make it. They aren't masterpieces. There are only so many of those.”

While the artist will usually take the solo route to creation, in horse racing the team has to operate as a cohesive unit to achieve its own version of a master work.

“What I try to teach my assistants is the importance of painting a picture without giving me a novel,” he said when asked how one can help ensure everything coming together on these big days. “There are things that matter and things that really don't. Paint a picture that I can clearly see what's there. If you don't explain to me exactly what it is, I'm not as much help to you. Make it like I'm there with you. So then I know I can tell you exactly what to do. I can't be everywhere at once and so I'm relying on them to paint an accurate picture.”

 

The Frankel Factor

Armed with one of this year's Derby favorites, Brown is famously a former assistant to Bobby Frankel, who like Brown, was best known for his turf runners. The Hall of Famer made eight starts in the Kentucky Derby, finishing second with Aptitude (2000) and Empire Maker (2003) and third with Peace Rules (2003).

“It's really the only race that eluded him during his legendary career,” said Brown. “He had a couple of close calls. With Empire Maker, he felt that horse was really special. He believed he was going to win the Triple Crown. Bobby was under a tremendous amount of pressure leading up to the derby. It is a very rare opportunity to have a horse that you think can win the Triple Crown. Looking back on it, it felt like he finally got the horse he was waiting for. One that could win the Derby.”

Trainer Bobby Frankel with his dog Happy | Horsephotos

He continued, “Empire Maker had some issues and timing is everything in the derby. There is no room for error. If something isn't quite right, you can lose the race while still having the best horse. We've seen that a few times in history where the best horse didn't win, but the best horse on that day won. That's one of the things that makes winning the derby so difficult.”

While a derby win may have slipped through Frankel's fingers, Brown asserts that the principals he picked up from that master horseman has given him many of the tools that he has employed to earn four consecutive Eclipse training titles from 2016 through 2019.

“I learned a lot about training, learning and teaching people from him,” he said. “Sometimes, it took years of experiences to finally understand what he meant and why he did things a certain way. Some people don't really have to say much to teach. But you have to be open to it and really pay attention. He wasn't an active teacher, but you could absorb lessons from him if you were observing in the moment.”

And among the intangible things he learned from Frankel?

“You obviously can't pass on some things that are more intuitive, because you either have it or you don't,” he explained. “But it's weird because there are some things, I think I absorbed from him simply by being around him. I sometimes see myself having the same sort of feel for certain things as he did. I never realized I even picked certain things up from him until I started doing them.”

When asked what would it mean to take home the blanket of roses that Frankel, who succumbed to cancer in 2009, was unable to achieve for himself during his lifetime?

“It would mean a lot to me, personally, to win that race knowing that most of what have drawn upon to win that race came from him,” Brown said. “He just ran out of time. I would dedicate it to him.”

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