05/08/2008 11:00PM

Big Brown's best likely yet to come

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NEW YORK - It's understandable that few people were in the mood to rhapsodize about Big Brown's Kentucky Derby performance in the wake of the death of runner-up Eight Belles. As Saturday's Preakness approaches, with Big Brown probably 3-5 or less to take the next leg of the Triple Crown, it's time to ask the question: Was this as dominant a performance as it appeared, or was he flattered by what otherwise may have been the worst performance in years by all the colts other than the winner?

If you remove Eight Belles from the Derby, where she finished 4 3/4 lengths behind the winner, Big Brown's winning margin would have been 8 1/4 lengths over Denis of Cork. That's an even bigger winning margin than Barbaro's 6 1/2-length score over Bluegrass Cat in 2006, which remains the largest Derby margin since Assault's eight-length triumph over Spy Song in 1946.

Big Brown's time of 2:01.82 was nothing sensational, and equates to a conventional final-time speed figure on a par with most other recent Derby winners. Big Brown received a Beyer Speed Figure of 109, the same that Funny Cide got in 2003 and within two points of those posted by Barbaro (111 in 2006), Street Sense (110 in 2007), and Smarty Jones (107 in 2004).

The highest figures earned this decade were Monarchos's 116 in 2001 and War Emblem's 114 in 2002, though pace analysts would say that both those numbers were aided by different unusual pace set-ups: Monarchos's stretch-running style was helped by some of the fastest splits in Derby history, while War Emblem was able to finish strongly after getting a clear lead through modest fractions. Big Brown enjoyed a clean trip in the Derby, but didn't get an unusually good or bad set-up. He was sixth halfway through the race behind an average pace, and simply took over at will when asked.

Those who give horses extra credit for racing wide are bigger fans of the performance than the final time of the race would suggest, since Big Brown was four to six paths wide on both turns. Geometry aside, though, there is one even more compelling reason to think this may have been a more superior performance than the clock suggests: Big Brown was making only his fourth career start. This had not been done in 93 years, breaking another no-no on the rapidly-shrinking list of Derby Rules. Horses are campaigned so differently nowadays, making half or fewer starts before the classics than they used to, so perhaps this was inevitable. Still, it's something that even Curlin, the 2007 Horse of the Year, couldn't do a year ago.

The exciting thing about it is that even in a game in which lighter campaigns and fewer starts are the norm, horses still have plenty of upside after racing only four times. It's doubtful we've seen the best of Big Brown. While it may be unreasonable to ask him to exceed his Derby performance coming back on two weeks' rest in the Preakness, the potential is there for another few steps forward at some point. Usually, we wait for late-bloomers to come along in late spring or summer and catch up to the classic winners, but any such new faces may be trying to catch up to a moving-forward target this year.

There's also the less quantifiable issue of how authoritatively Big Brown won, a matter of visceral impression rather than lengths and figures. His performance had the feel of the occasional maiden race when a trainer tells the rider of a very well-meant firster just to take the horse out into the middle of the track and keep him out of trouble because he's so good he'll win anyway. Big Brown looked that much better than the 18 supposedly next-best males of his generation.

It's hard to see him losing the Preakness if he runs his "A" race, or even his A-minus race, but if someone's going to make it interesting it's probably the new shooter Harlem Rocker, who will be making only his fourth career start if he runs in the Preakness but has done everything right so far. He followed two impressive Gulfstream victories with a good-looking 2 1/2-length victory in the Withers that earned a Beyer of 106 - exactly what Big Brown got winning the Florida Derby in his third career start. Granted, it was a four-horse field and the runner-up, J Be K, is probably at his best going six furlongs, but it was a fast race despite moderate early fractions and Harlem Rocker seems to have nothing but blue skies ahead.

Then again, so does Big Brown.