If the rumblings around the backstretch about Normandy Invasion’s Thursday morning work rolled toward Longfield Avenue and Barn 42, Chad Brown betrayed no concern over it.
Under exercise rider Javier Herrera, Normandy Invasion stood in the gate, like he did in his preparation for the Wood Memorial, went out for what was supposed to be an easy gallop and pulled on Herrera more vigorously than was planned over the latter stages.
Brown doesn’t suffer shortcuts and mistakes around his barn, but the public face he presents is imperturbable under all circumstances. That even keel is one of the qualities that appeals to owners like Rick Porter, who sent Normandy Invasion to the young head trainer from Mechanicville last year to turn the colt into a Kentucky Derby horse, and, well, here they are.
Brown saddled horses in the Travers Stakes at his hometown track, Saratoga Race Course, for the first time two years ago, and now will break ground on another important section of his burgeoning career.
Normandy Invasion not only is Brown’s first Derby horse, but one who many consider a legitimate contender to win the 139th Run for the Roses on Saturday, despite the fact that he shows just a maiden win in five career starts.
“Chad’s only 34 years old; he’ll get to the top,” Porter said. “He just needs to get a break and get a better group of 2-year-olds and get rid of the stigma of being a grass trainer, because he can train any kind of horse.”
Brown has developed a reputation for turf success since going out on his own in 2007, a year before he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Filly Turf with Maram.
Since then, he’s trained two female turf Eclipse Award winners — Stacelita and Zagora — and won the 2012 Breeders’ Cup with Zagora.
Three of his juveniles last year — Noble Tune, Watsdachances and Balance the Books — finished in the money at the Breeders’ Cup — all on the turf.
Bolstered by the support of Porter, who owned 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace and has had three Derby starters before Normandy Invasion, including the filly Eight Belles, Brown’s prospects in the classic dirt races should improve significantly.
At 12-1, Normandy Invasion is the fourth choice of 20 horses on the morning line.
“It means a lot to have a shot to win this race,” Brown said. “It’s what we work toward every day. It’s why you’re a trainer. It’s the race everyone wants to win. It’s great to be a part of the history of it.”
Brown’s family still inhabits the same picnic table in the Saratoga Race Course backyard where he learned to love the sport as a kid.
Two years ago, he saddled his first Travers starter, Bowman’s Causeway, and he finished last.
The same thing happened last summer, when Street Life was last at 6-1, although there were extenuating circumstances.
Street Life came out of the race with an unusual shoulder injury and was retired.
Like Brown’s career, Normandy Invasion, a bay son of Tapit out of the Boston Harbor mare Boston Lady, is a work in progress.
Some minor setbacks prevented him from debuting at Saratoga last summer, and he was slow out of the gate in his first start, which was also an issue in the Risen Star on Feb. 23.
The 3-2 favorite finished fifth, but was only a length and a half out of it, making up all kinds of ground on the leaders in deep stretch.
He followed that up with a second by three-quarters of a length to Verrazano in the Wood.
“If we really wanted to put more wins on his resumé, we could’ve run him in some easier races,” Brown said. “He identified himself as one of the best horses of this crop that was sent to me in mid-July. He really started training well at Saratoga.
“He’s seen a lot. He’s been bumped a lot. He’s passed a lot of horses, and he’s starting to figure it out.”
On Thursday, Brown followed a formula that worked in the Wood, having Normandy Invasion stand in the gate before his work.
He was out in the middle of the track coming off the clubhouse turn, and was a little difficult to pull up for a horse who was just supposed to go for an easy gallop, raising speculation that he may actually have done too much two days before the Derby.
“That’s him. He’s really sharp right now,” Brown said. “His gallop was a little quick, but it won’t bother him. He’s real sharp and acting good around the barn here, so I’m happy.
“This horse is so sharp right now. You just have to hold him to the ground. He’s really full of himself.”
This will be Porter’s fourth crack at the Derby, and first since 2009, when Friesan Fire was 18th.
Eight Belles broke down in the gallop-out after finishing second to Big Brown in 2008, and Hard Spun carried Porter’s red-and-white silks to a second behind Street Sense in 2007.
He began sending horses Brown’s way a few years ago, and is convinced that he possesses all of the qualities of a top-level trainer.
Besides Normandy Invasion, Porter is excited about the 3-year-old filly Fame and Fortune, a full sister to Cross Traffic, who was second to Flat Out in the Westchester on Saturday.
“Integrity. Good communicator, and a very intelligent guy who thinks things out,” Porter said of Brown. “Patience. He really plans things out and shares it with me. And most of all, the passion he’s got for being a trainer and getting to the top of the game. He’s got the whole package. He’s got a very level head.
“You wouldn’t know he’s got a good horse in the Derby, other than, with all the people around and him being at Churchill Downs. Other than that, he’s the same Chad. He rarely gets excited. It’s hard to get a smile on his face.
“I think I know one way we could get a smile on his face.”