There was nothing little about Big Brown's racing career.
From his overpowering victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness to his spectacular flop in the Belmont as he bid for a Triple Crown, Big Brown and his entourage — including his maverick owner and outspoken trainer — simply didn't do subtle.
Yet less than two weeks away from his final race, the brilliant champion with brittle feet ended his career not with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita but in front of a few stunned onlookers at Aqueduct following an otherwise routine workout.
Michael Iavarone of IEAH Stables, co-owners of Big Brown, said his horse tore a three-inch piece of flesh off the foot after it collided with his right rear foot while working over Aqueduct's turf course with stablemate Kip Deville.
"This was a complete fluke," Iavarone said. "He hadn't had issues with his feet for a while and to have him come up just like this was a shock to all of us."
The injury could take at least two months to heal, making it impossible for Big Brown to run in the BC Classic on Oct. 25 at Santa Anita. Big Brown is due at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., by the end of the year to begin his stud career, preventing him from getting back on the track one last time.
"We don't have a choice but to retire him," Iavarone said. "It's gut-wrenching."
The injury itself isn't life-threatening, Iavarone said, but added it's important to make sure infection doesn't set in while he recovers.
"I expect the next few days to be pretty rough on him," Iavarone said. "We've got to take care of him."
Iavarone watched from the backstretch at Aqueduct while Big Brown completed the six-furlong work and thought his horse was ready for a possible shot at reigning Horse of the Year Curlin in the BC Classic until Iavarone returned to the barn and saw the troubled look on trainer Rick Dutrow's face.
"It looks like he grabbed himself in a bad spot," Dutrow said.
Big Brown will spend several weeks in New York while he recovers before being shipped to Three Chimneys.
The injury caps a dazzling but somewhat controversial career for Big Brown, who won seven times in eight starts, including dominant runs in the Derby and the Preakness, and earned $3.6 million.
Yet it could be Big Brown's lone loss that may define him.
Following remarkably easy wins in the Derby and the Preakness by a combined 9¾ lengths, Big Brown headed to the Belmont primed to end a 30-year Triple Crown drought.
Dutrow seemed to have no doubt. He spent the days leading up to the race boasting his horse was the class of the field, even after admitting he took Big Brown off the anabolic steroid Winstrol and limited the colt's training as he dealt with a quarter crack in his left front hoof that required a patch to be placed on it the day before the race.
The public seemed nearly as confident as Dutrow, sending Big Brown out as a heavy favorite at sweltering Belmont.
It never happened.
Jockey Kent Desormeaux quickly moved Big Brown toward the front and put him in perfect stalking position on the backstretch only to suddenly ease him after sensing Big Brown had nothing left to give.
The performance led to speculation that Big Brown was simply a byproduct of Dutrow's aggressive — though legal at the time — use of steroids.
Iavarone responded to the criticism by announcing IEAH was banning the use of all unnecessary medication and that Big Brown's victories were a product of talent, not better racing through chemistry.
Big Brown bounced back from the Belmont with gritty wins in the Haskell Invitational and the Monmouth Stakes and was poised for a shot at Curlin, horse racing's all-time leading money winner.
Iavarone saw the Classic as a chance at redemption. Now he's only left to wonder what might have been.
"I don't think we ever got to the bottom of Big Brown," he said. "You saw the changeover from utter brilliance to his heart in his last two races. ... He developed a heart as big as his physical ability was. If we ever got to the part where he put the two together, we would have seen something that would have been breathtaking."
Horse racing certainly could have used the boost that having its two biggest stars face off after months of back-and-forth between their ownership groups would have provided.
"Not having the winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness isn't a plus," said Breeders' Cup president Greg Avioli. "It doesn't help us, but there's still tremendous enthusiasm for the Breeders' Cup."
Maybe, though Curlin majority owner Jess Jackson said he was "saddened" by the news.
"I am equally disappointed that Big Brown and Curlin will never compete against each other," Jackson said in a release. "It was a dream of mine and thousands of other fans of the sport."
Big Brown isn't the first star 3-year-old to miss the BC Classic due to injury. Smarty Jones, who won the Derby and Preakness in 2004, missed the Classic that year with a bruised foot and retired to Three Chimneys.
While the disappointment over the injury will linger, Iavarone knows things could have been worse. Four months after filly Eight Belles was euthanized on the track after finishing runner-up to Big Brown in the Derby, horse racing can't afford another high-profile breakdown. Big Brown will eventually recover, and that's good news.
"Now he'll go on to see his babies run in 3-4 years," he said.
Just how much it'll cost to make those babies remains to be seen. Three Chimneys signed a stud deal reportedly worth $50 million. A win in the BC Classic could have upped the asking price, though Three Chimneys president Case Clay is sure Big Brown will still command a high fee.
"He's the best of his generation," Clay said. "I think his stud fee will be different than if he won the Classic, what that'll be, I'm not sure."
Iavarone is not worried about Big Brown's stud value or racing's ability to foster new stars.
"He's a one in a million as an owner and as far as the fans are concerned, there are going to be more Big Browns that come down the road," he said. "The game is going to be OK as long as horses like Big Brown keep coming along."