06/01/2008 11:00PM

Big Brown a long way from Big Red


NEW YORK - If Big Brown completes his sweep of the Triple Crown in Saturday's Belmont Stakes - for what it's worth, I don't think it is quite the foregone conclusion trainer Rick Dutrow seems to think it is - he will invite inevitable comparisons to the other most recent Triple Crown winners.

Let me say this right now: If Big Brown wins, I don't care what you do. Compare him with Affirmed and Seattle Slew until your eyes become blurry from staring too long at their past performances, and compare him favorably if you like. But do not, under any circumstances, lest you betray your ignorance, compare Big Brown favorably with Secretariat.

I know what you're thinking. Here's another crusty old geezer - and an admitted Secretariat-ophile, to boot - about to tell us how much better horses "back in the day" were. I know all about how frustrating this can be, as I've been there, and experienced that. It wasn't that long ago - just a couple of decades - when I had one particularly memorable conversation with Jack Wilson, the longtime head of chart callers when this paper was in the business of compiling charts. Having told Wilson my heavily considered opinion - I do have immense respect for the history of this sport - that Secretariat was the greatest racehorse ever, he told me Citation could have beaten Secretariat "pulling a wagon." I dismissed most of that bluster to the "Back in the Day Syndrome," as well as Wilson's penchant for needling, which he did just as well as he called charts. Still, I had to accept that, in his opinion, Wilson thought Citation was superior to Secretariat.

If Big Brown wins Saturday, people will notice a couple of coincidental similarities between Big Brown and Secretariat, such as both broke long Triple Crown droughts - Big Brown would be the first in the 30 years since Affirmed, while Secretariat was the first since Citation 25 years earlier - and both were/are to be retired to stud after their 3-year-old seasons. Beyond that, the only similarities between Big Brown and Secretariat are - and I say this with considerable respect and admiration for Big Brown - both had four legs, a mane, and a tail.

Yes, if Big Brown wins Saturday, he will still be undefeated, while Secretariat was not always perfect. But before he ever even started at 3, Secretariat was already a reigning Horse of the Year, an honor he would take both seasons he raced. If Big Brown loses Saturday, he might not be a Horse of any Year, depending on what Curlin does the second half of this year.

Whereas Big Brown, despite his four straight triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures, has yet to seriously threaten a track record, Secretariat made a habit of toying with them. The whole world knows that Secretariat obliterated the track record in the Belmont Stakes by 2.60 seconds with his clocking of 2:24, and set a track record of 1:59.40 in the Kentucky Derby. But he also set a Triple Crown track record when he won the Preakness in 1:53.40, a distinction that was officially denied him because of the stubbornness of Pimlico management, which stuck with a slower clocking produced by a malfunctioning timer. Secretariat also set a world record for 1 1/8 miles when he won the Marlboro Cup in 1:45.40, set a 1 1/2-mile turf course record at Belmont of 2:24.80 when he won the Man o' War, and equaled Aqueduct's then one-mile track record of 1:33.40 when he won the Gotham. Secretariat's 1 1/2-mile and 1 1/8-mile main-track records at Belmont, and his 1 1/4-mile main-track record at Churchill Downs, still stand, which is amazing considering that in the 35 years since they occurred, advances in track maintenance have produced racing surfaces conducive to faster times.

Big Brown has been scrutinized for beating up on fields of dubious quality. Of course, the fact that there hasn't been anyone around to date to really test him is not his fault. That said, it would take a good imagination to picture Big Brown coming remotely close to emulating what Secretariat did in the Marlboro Cup. Secretariat not only won the Marlboro Cup in world-record time, he did so with arrogant ease over a field that included two Hall of Famers, Riva Ridge and Cougar II; Canadian Horse of the Year Kennedy Road; and champion Key to the Mint.

As much of an accomplishment as it would be for Big Brown to win Saturday, he could race 100 more times and never do what Secretariat did in his Belmont: He established the reference point by which all modern racehorses are measured.

So if Big Brown wins Saturday, compare away. I will, too, because the rich history of this sport requires such achievements be placed in historical context. Just when you get to Secretariat, be careful. Be very, very careful.