With a victory in the Belmont Stakes, Big Brown will go down as one of the most profitable thoroughbreds in racing history, pulling in tens of millions of dollars in prize money, sponsorships, stud fees and merchandise sales.
But the colt's failure to win hearts might limit his earnings potential: Racing fans haven't embraced Big Brown the way they have past champions, thanks in part to the checkered past of his owner and trainer.
A win for the Lexington-bred 3-year-old at the Belmont on Saturday would make Big Brown the first winner of racing's Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Big Brown is a heavy favorite after easy victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and his dominance already has earned him nearly $3 million.
Big Brown's owners, International Equine Acquisitions and Holdings (IEAH), sold the horse's stud rights for a reported fee of more than $50 million just before the Preakness. Big Brown likely will attract a $100,000 stud fee after he retires.
Then there is the great potential for merchandise sales, both at tracks around the country and online. The owners of long-retired horses like Secretariat, Affirmed, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones still earn money from the sales of everything from hats and T-shirts to photographs and posters.
"The possibilities are almost endless, quite honestly," said Jack Knowlton, managing partner for Funny Cide, who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 2003 but finished third in the Belmont. "We had an opportunity to do a lot of things that were beyond the realm. Just to do that, for us, was a lot of fun."
But Big Brown so far has failed to gain the popularity of Funny Cide or Smarty Jones, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2004 before finishing a close second in the Belmont.
In the case of Funny Cide, fans were drawn to the story of Knowlton and his high school buddies, who bought the horse on a whim as racing outsiders.
Smarty Jones, meanwhile, garnered a massive following from championship-starved fans in the Philadelphia area, where the horse trained. They were particularly drawn to him because of his recovery from a fractured skull sustained after hitting his head on a gate the previous year.
But little about Big Brown other than his on-track performance has resonated with fans. IEAH is controlled by a former investment banker once censured and suspended by Wall Street regulators. Big Brown's trainer, Rick Dutrow Jr., was suspended for both his own drug use and for illegally drugging his own horses. Last week he caused a stir by declaring a Big Brown win at the Belmont a "foregone conclusion."
"You don't seem to have the same level of affection," said Leonard Lusky, president of secretariat.com, which sells merchandise relating to the 1973 Triple Crown winner and other horses. "[Big Brown's] accomplishments will speak for themselves, but if the owners don't have a sense of obligation to the fans, it may not last. If the owners are very accommodating to the fans, he will be an enduring and beloved Triple Crown winner."
Merchandisers like horsehats.com, which sells caps bearing the names of famous thoroughbreds, said Big Brown is popular but hasn't made a connection with fans in the same way as Funny Cide or Smarty Jones did.
"Dutrow's kind of said some things that rubbed some people the wrong way, so that does play some role," horsehats.com owner Dave Williams said. "But to say he's not popular would not be accurate. He's overcome all this negative stuff by the way he's winning. People can separate the owner and the trainer from the horse. If he wins on Saturday, all of that will fall by the wayside."
Dutrow, for his part, said fans should find plenty to love in Big Brown.
"If anyone out there that is not rooting for Big Brown, if they were to meet this horse, I'm sure they would root for him," he said.
Big Brown's earnings potential also could be impacted by what his future holds. He can make millions from stud fees by retiring early, but his race winnings and merchandise sales would improve if he were to continue racing even for just a year or two, industry sources said. And a longer career also would benefit shipping company UPS, which signed a sponsorship deal with the horse before the Kentucky Derby.
"Obviously we'd like to maximize this opportunity as much as we can," said UPS spokeswoman Kristen Petrella, who said the company was still exploring how the relationship with Big Brown might evolve if he wins the Belmont. "This sort of fell into our lap, but we've had a lot of fun with it."