Although I'm the resident horse racing buff here, I've been silent during the Triple Crown season. With the exception of Big Brown, the prep season gave us little to get excited about. Big Brown's victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness have changed that dramatically. Big Brown has shown that he's something special. Ordinary horses don't circle the field in the Derby, take a breather on the far turn, and sprint away from the best of their generation. He validated this view in the Preakness, navigating a poor start and tight quarters early, on the way to the easiest of triumphs.
While Big Brown is beating a modest group of challengers, he's doing so with an authority which suggests he could be the best three year old since Spectacular Bid. The Bid was an aggressive alpha male who threw a catch-me-if-you can gauntlet at his rivals and ground them into bits. Big Brown is different. He cruises along with a lengthy, seemingly effortless stride. He is responsive to his rider and can make a move at will, and then find another gear when asked to leave the competition behind. Combine this tractability with speed and stamina and you have a special racehorse. But even Spectacular Bid failed to win the Belmont Stakes.
What can we expect from Big Brown in three week's time? Here are the views of two trainers who have been around the triple crown trail for decades, courtesy of Ray Paulick at ESPN. First, Wayne Lukas:
"A dominating Derby winner ran a dominating race today," Lukas said. "But those other dominating horses end up having to do it again in three weeks, and I've always said it's not just a Triple Crown -- it's a demanding five-race series, because you almost always have to have two good ones in front of it just to get in the Derby itself. Big Brown is lightly raced, and he's got that in his favor. Frankly, I think he will win it, but it's not a given."
... Big Brown's trainer, Rick Dutrow, said after the Preakness he intends to give the colt one timed workout before the Belmont. He has been careful not to work the colt too hard because of problems he's had with quarter cracks in his feet, which have been aided by glue-on shoes that have a protective padding.
"Rick hasn't made any mistakes so far," Lukas said, "but he's in uncharted waters now. There are no preparations for going a mile and a half. So he's got to read his horse very carefully and evaluate his strengths going into this final leg."
Next, a more sanguine Bob Baffert, whose Silver Charm and Real Quiet were nailed deep in the Belmont stretch (as was the unbeaten Smarty Jones) to ruin their triple crown hopes:
"This is the horse we've all been waiting for," Baffert said of Big Brown. "We all want a horse like this.
"When he wins, he doesn't turn a hair. He doesn't get excited. He knows he is so good. In the paddock before the Preakness, it was like nothing for him. And then, when he came back after the race, that horse didn't look like he even took a deep breath."
Baffert then paid Big Brown the ultimate compliment: "This is the best horse I've seen since I've been in the business."
There are only two obstacles between Big Brown and a Triple Crown victory, according to Baffert: the quarter cracks that plagued him earlier this year and the Japanese horse Casino Drive, who made an impressive U.S. debut, winning the May 10 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park in only his second career start. Casino Drive was produced from Better Than Honour, the dam of the past two Belmont winners: Jazil and Rags to Riches.
"If the Japanese horse wasn't in there, it would be a gimme," Baffert said. "He's the only horse I see that has the quality even close to Big Brown."
What advice, if any, does Baffert have for Dutrow over the next few weeks?
"Just keep those shoes on him, babe. That's all you need to do."
Although both are clearly impressed by the horse, I lean more towards the optimistic view of Baffert than the guarded Lukas. Nevertheless, Casino Drive was impressive in winning the Peter Pan Stakes, and he is clearly fast. He has a "grind-it-out" style, which suits the Belmont's mile and a half distance. He seems capable of making Big Brown work to win the Belmont, which makes the race one to anticipate. As Andrew Beyer points out, Big Brown must beat quality horses in order to claim the mantle of greatness. The Belmont Stakes will provide his chance.