05/11/2008 11:00PM

Belmont showdown seems inevitable

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NEW YORK - While everyone drools at the prospect of a Belmont Stakes scenario involving Big Brown going for the Triple Crown while being challenged by the likewise undefeated Casino Drive, let's pause and remember: First things first. Big Brown has to win this Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.

Big Brown will be an odds-on favorite to hold up his end of the bargain. Let's face it, the only way Big Brown doesn't win on Saturday and head to the Belmont hoping to become the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years is if he is somehow unable to run a representative race because of the short two-week gap between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Considering how increasingly fragile racehorses appear to have become, this is not an insignificant issue. That is certainly the case for a colt such as Big Brown, who has had foot problems and has known nothing but longer time intervals between starts. Still, all Big Brown has to do to win the Preakness is to run close to a representative race. That is how dominant he was in the Kentucky Derby and in his three career starts before that.

So why, then, are so many horses lining up to face Big Brown on Saturday? Big Brown seemed to make his point very clear on those who finished behind him in Kentucky. Until he got sick, Recapturetheglory was going to be the only Derby starter back to take another crack in the Preakness. We now have the first Preakness since Triple Crown winner Citation's race 60 years ago with only one starter coming out of the Derby, and Citation faced only three opponents in his Preakness.

But that doesn't seem to dissuade a near gateful of new shooters. I understand that if it weren't for dreams against all odds, Triple Crown lore would have missed out on such great stories as Canonero II, who would have been a zillion to one in the 1971 Kentucky Derby if he had not been part of the parimutuel field, but who won decisively and proved his Derby wasn't a fluke with an impressive win in the Preakness. But honestly, it's hard not to wonder what the connections of some aspirants for this Preakness are thinking.

Yankee Bravo, Stevil, and Icabad Crane are all decent horses. But none has even earned a Beyer Figure as high as 90. In Big Brown, they are going up against a colt who has surpassed the triple-digit Beyer plateau in all three of his starts this year and, quick turnaround or not, is a colt who, given his inexperience, has every license to get much faster, and soon. You don't have to try very hard to find obvious flaws in a bunch of the other Preakness probables, either. That, however, is not the point. Is the lure of just being there and participating in the Preakness so strong that it is enough to compensate for the likelihood of your horse being overmatched?

Casino Drive - well, he is another matter. All it took was a little more than 107 seconds for him to demonstrate in last Saturday's nine-furlong Peter Pan that he will be a worthy challenger for anyone who shows up for the Belmont. A half-brother to 2006 Belmont Stakes winner Jazil and three-quarter brother to 2007 Belmont winner Rags to Riches, Casino Drive was making his first start since a runaway score in his debut in Japan in February. He overwhelmed the Peter Pan field with great style. Granted, there wasn't much behind him. But it was obvious that Casino Drive was not nearly at his best, and that, given his inexperience, he is poised to take a huge step forward very soon. And even so, he received a Beyer Figure of 101.

Kent Desormeaux, Big Brown's jockey, rode Casino Drive. If Big Brown delivers this Saturday, you can be sure Desormeaux will be endlessly pumped for information comparing the two in the run-up to the Belmont. This situation is somewhat reminiscent of the 1997 Triple Crown involving Silver Charm and Touch Gold.

Gary Stevens began the year as Touch Gold's jockey and became Silver Charm's rider early in the season, committing to him for the Triple Crown. After Touch Gold aired in the Lexington Stakes, Stevens was reported to have expressed great relief that Touch Gold wasn't running in the Derby, which Silver Charm narrowly won. The two did meet in the Preakness, which Silver Charm and Stevens also narrowly won. But Touch Gold was much the best horse that day, stumbling badly at the start, tearing a foot to shreds, and coming from well back to be beaten only 1 1/2 lengths - all while running over a track that was highly biased against closers. The two met again in the Belmont, and Touch Gold, practically on three feet, got up to win and deny Silver Charm's Triple Crown bid.