05/18/2008 11:00PM

Big Brown not home free

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Since the beginning of May we have seen three excellent performances by 3-year-old colts that suggest there may be more to the 2008 Horse of the Year competition than 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin.

Big Brown, of course, owns two of those sparkling performances, one in the Kentucky Derby, the other in the Preakness. In the Derby, Big Brown proved that post 20 and a very wide trip were not enough to defeat a horse of his natural ability. In the Preakness, Big Brown showed new dimensions to his talent, winning by open lengths while geared down through the final 100 yards.

The other eye-opening performance was turned in by the Kentucky-bred, Japanese-owned Casino Drive, who was professional beyond his lack of racing experience while dominating the nine-furlong Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont on May 10 in his American debut.

How good is Big Brown?

Good enough to look truly ready to become the first horse since Affirmed to sweep the elusive American Triple Crown.

How good is Casino Drive?

No disrespect to Macho Again and Icabad Crane, who ran quite well for second and third, respectively, in the Preakness, but from this vantage point Casino Drive looked better moving between horses to his Peter Pan victory than any horse Big Brown defeated in the Preakness. Moreover, the Japanese invader has not reached his full potential with only two career starts - one in Tokyo, one in New York - and his four-star breeding says he will appreciate the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont Stakes more than any horse on earth.

Casino Drive is the result of mating 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft to the amazing mare Better Than Honour, who not only produced 2006 Belmont Stakes winner Jazil but also foaled 2007 champion 3-year-old filly Rags to Riches, a thrilling winner over Curlin in last year's Belmont stakes.

Foaling two straight winners of the 1 1/2-mile Belmont already puts Better Than Honour among the most accomplished broodmares of modern times and gives Casino Drive credentials for his bid to derail Big Brown from a place among the game's immortals.

The fact that Big Brown's regular jockey Kent Desormeaux was aboard Casino Drive in his Peter Pan romp also plays into this potentially dramatic confrontation. When he dismounted from Casino Drive, Desormeaux admitted he was "impressed," adding succinctly, "this colt is a real runner and he'll be a handful [for Big Brown] to deal with."

Barely a week later, Desormeaux was euphoric in what he experienced while winning the Preakness with three subtle moves and an explosive burst of speed at the top of the stretch: "He's by far the best horse I've ever been on," he said.

And Desormeaux has been aboard many top horses in his Hall of Fame career, including 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus and 1998 Derby-Preakness winner Real Quiet, who lost his Triple Crown bid by an inch to Victory Gallop.

Desormeaux says Big Brown's edge over other horses traces beyond his great talent. "He has more intelligence than any horse I've been on," Desormeaux explained. "He doesn't get excited; he responds perfectly to my commands, and he will push it into a higher gear whenever I ask him."

To appreciate a truly great performance, we could go to the archives and look up some of Kelso's races, all three of Secretariat's Triple Crown wins, and a few more from that historic colt. We also could recall Cigar's triumphs in the first Dubai World Cup and/or the 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic; or the final performance of Personal Ensign's undefeated career in which she caught Derby winner Winning Colors on the wire in the 1988 BC Distaff.

But we do not have to go back that far. The 2008 Preakness turned in by Big Brown - who is now undefeated in five career starts - is the kind of performance that provides similar testimony, although he has a long way to go to match the careers of the above named racing greats.

Consider: In the Preakness, Big Brown broke relatively well; moved to the inside under Desormeaux's command before the first turn; raced handily while inside through the turn; responded quickly to Desormeaux's command on the backstretch to pull back out of a possible trap when Riley Tucker tried to pin him in. Next, Desormeaux effortlessly was able to move the agile Big Brown into the clear on the outside without discouraging him, or losing momentum to gain a perfect stalking position.

While still responding to Desormeaux's adroit, very light control, Big Brown remained under restraint through the final turn and then, with his jockey merely flicking his wrists to awaken Big Brown a bit, the undefeated horse put in a powerful burst of acceleration to open up three, four, and five lengths in less than four seconds to thoroughly dismiss his rivals.

Once in the clear, Desormeaux looked back under his arms for the fourth time in the race and called upon the colt to go back to his cruising gear for the final sixteenth of a mile with nary a challenger in sight. Coming back to the saddling area, the undefeated Big Brown looked as if he could have gone back in the gate and added victory number six, 10 minutes later.

Looking ahead to the Belmont on June 7, Big Brown and Casino Drive are expected to be joined by Denis of Cork and Tale of Ekati, the third- and fourth-place finishers in the Kentucky Derby, respectively; Nick Zito's Anak Nakal; Tomcito, a Kentucky-bred who began his career in Peru; Macho Again; and Icabad Crane.

That said, a lot can happen between the third week in May and the first Saturday in June, including possible injuries and/or a return of Big Brown's once prominent hoof problems. For his part, trainer Rick Dutrow promises not to overtrain Big Brown, or do much more than feed, jog, and gallop him, saving him for just one training breeze of moderate speed several days before the race. So, if Big Brown makes it to race day in full health and Casino Drive continues to prepare well for the confrontation, Belmont Park will need all of its cavernous space to host record numbers of racing fans and curiosity seekers for the 140th running of this historic race.

After so many years of failed Triple Crown bids, most racing fans, including hard-bitten, value-hungry horseplayers who did quite well cashing generous exotic payoffs in the Derby and Preakness might find themselves content to see a Big Brown-Casino Drive exacta for what could be a record-low Belmont Stakes payoff.

The 2008 Belmont Stakes promises to be more than a nationally televised Grade 1 race to gamble upon; it could even live up to its apt nickname "The Test of the Champion." If we are lucky, we just might see a potential champion at his best against a very good, improving horse who was bred to provide a most intriguing challenge.