03/29/2008 12:00AM

Big Brown looms large for Derby


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Big Brown completed the remarkable jump from virtual anonymity to the likely Kentucky Derby favorite in a period of less than four weeks after posting an eye-catching five-length victory over Smooth Air and 10 other overmatched rivals in Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby. The triumph also completed a dream day for trainer Rick Dutrow, who earlier won two rich stakes on the Dubai World Cup card with Diamond Stripes and Benny the Bull.

"I don't see any 3-year-old that can beat him anywhere in the world and I've watched them all," Dutrow said of Big Brown. "I totally misjudged him before his last race. I didn't know he was that good."

Big Brown, undefeated and as yet untested in three career starts, did not make his 3-year-old debut until winning a first-level allowance race by 12 3/4 lengths here on March 5. The performance was so outstanding that it prompted both Dutrow and jockey Kent Desormeaux to cancel scheduled trips to Dubai to remain with the son of Boundary for the Grade 1 Florida Derby.

Big Brown's victory also dispelled the notion that it was impossible to win a race from post 12 going 1 1/8 miles over the main track at Gulfstream Park. Big Brown became the first horse to win from either post 11 or 12 at the distance since the track was reconfigured in 2005. He paid $5 to win.

Big Brown overcame whatever post-position disadvantage he may have faced by taking command of the Florida Derby after going an opening quarter-mile in 22.76 seconds. He set fractions of 45.83 and 1:10.08 while continuing to control the pace, then drew off with complete authority despite weaving out and then back in while racing greenly through the stretch.

Smooth Air advanced strongly along the inside leaving the backstretch and while no match for the winner was easily second best, finishing 7 1/2 lengths ahead of Peruvian invader Tomcito, who rallied from last. Elysium Fields, runner-up in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes, faltered badly after prompting the pace for five furlongs and beat only one horse.

IEAH Stables purchased a majority interest in Big Brown from owner Paul Pompa Jr. following his maiden win last summer at Saratoga. Big Brown's final time of 1:48.16 was just 0.37 of a second off Brass Hat's 1 1/8-mile track record, and nearly a full second faster than 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro's final clocking for his Florida Derby victory earlier that spring. It was also the fastest Florida Derby since Unbridled's Song's victory in 1996.