05/05/2008 12:00AM

Big Brown's big hurdle


Big Brown looked so strong winning the Kentucky Derby that it is hard to picture anything but his fifth straight victory in the Preakness Stakes on May 17.

Only eight new rivals are expected for the 1 3/16-mile classic at Pimlico:

Behindatthebar, who won the Lexington Stakes on April 19 as if he has a Grade 1 future; El Gato Malo, winner of the San Rafael, whose connections believe the shorter Preakness will prove to be a more reasonable target than the 10-furlong Kentucky Derby; Giant Moon, a fair fourth in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct; Harlem Rocker, a lightly raced, improving winner of the one-mile Withers; Kentucky Bear and Stevil, third and fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland; Tres Borrachos, who set the pace when third to Gayego in the Arkansas Derby; and California Derby winner Yankee Bravo, who was third to Pyro in the Louisiana Derby.

If I were making an odds line on Big Brown vs. that prospective field, the Derby winner would be a stone-cold 1-5 shot; Behindatthebar, Harlem Rocker and El Gato Malo would be 12-1 apiece and you could have the rest at any price. This does not mean that Big Brown also is a cinch to be the 12th Triple Crown winner in racing history, although he will be touted as such if he comes through the Preakness with two legs up on the elusive sweep. Some caution would be wise to keep in mind.

Denis of Cork, who finished well from last place to be a non-threatening third in the Derby, could be a more serious threat in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, as might the highly touted Japanese invader Casino Drive, whose dam Better Than Honour foaled the last two Belmont stakes winners, Jazil and Rags to Riches. Casino Drive is among three Japanese horses expected to run in the nine-furlong Peter Pan on May 10 to see if any belong in the Belmont.

The level and the depth of competition however is not Big Brown's biggest obstacle. The number one concern is his history of hoof problems, which could flare back up at any time. Of almost equal concern is how he was rushed somewhat - albeit expertly - by trainer Rick Dutrow in order to make it to Louisville on three lifetime races and only two this year. At some point on this remarkable run, Big Brown could be eligible for a regression of his form, or a bounce as some would state it.

When we add the stress that comes naturally from a wide, powerful Kentucky Derby performance to another classic race in two weeks, the 1 1/2-mile Belmont only three weeks later may not turn out to be a free square.

Of the 19 rivals who tried to give Big Brown some competition in the Derby, none had a viable excuse and only one remains a remote possibility to be in the Preakness starting gate: Recapturetheglory.

Recapturetheglory did produce a good effort close to the pace and only tired to fifth in the final 100 yards. But trainer Louie Roussel III has hinted that he is unlikely to try Big Brown again so soon.

Of the other 18 in the Derby field, only the ill-fated filly Eight Belles showed enough to suggest she might have deserved consideration for a possible upset in the shorter Preakness. But she is gone. Another gut-wrenching casualty in front of 150,000 live fans and millions more at dozens of other racetracks, offtrack betting parlors, casino race books, bars, and living rooms across the country that never get properly counted in the flawed Nielsen Ratings. To a man, woman, and child, we all shared hushed feelings of sadness just moments after Big Brown scored a win as dominant as Barbaro's Derby victory in 2006.

Eight Belles certainly gave no hint that she was under physical duress during the 1 1/4-mile Derby, although she was forced to steady twice during the race. That said, this latest public death of a gallant racehorse is sure to bring calls for more synthetic track surfaces. This time, such calls may have a legitimate case to present.

Consider: The Churchill Downs racing surface that was a sea of slop on Friday was made extremely fast for the Derby by sealing and compressing the upper layer of the surface to such an extent that it squeezed the water out and created a very thin layer of cushion. Under such conditions, the thin layer of topsoil tends to mute the shock-absorbing effect that usually comes from 3 to 4 inches of upper-level cushion.

That in a nutshell is the principal point that synthetic track advocates are trying to impress upon racetrack owners, horsemen, and horseplayers. The practice of compressing a racing surface to squeeze out rainwater is a ticket for potential catastrophic foot injuries.

Paraphrasing comments made by the former trainer Michael Dickinson, whose present energies are devoted to the promotion of his synthetic Tapeta track, installed at Golden Gate Fields and Presque Isle Downs: A well-designed synthetic racing surface is a track in which rain has no real impact. Properly maintained, the tons of water that fall on such a surface should drain right through it, theoretically leaving a safe surface that provides a natural shock-absorbing effect on the horses who run over it.

Cutting right to the chase, Eight Belles's tragic breakdown on the squeezed-out Churchill surface on Saturday, leaves Churchill Downs one more public breakdown away from making the switch. Either that, or track officials will have to turn back the clock a dozen years or so and let their wet surfaces dry out naturally without leaving horses vulnerable to heavily rolled, dried-out tracks that have no shock absorbing capability.

And one more thing. While most of us were properly dazzled by Big Brown's high class performance at Churchill, we do not know as of yet if running on that surface had any impact on his feet.

Remember, Dutrow elected to use front bandages on Big Brown for the first time in the Derby to protect his heels from getting singed by the surface, and that Big Brown's feet have endured multiple quarter cracks and were equipped with glue-on shoes to further lower the odds of a recurring problem.

Make no mistake, I am a big Big Brown fan, as you might have guessed from previous Derby commentary during the past two months. But, even under normal conditions, few totally sound horses are permitted to run in three hard races in five weeks at three different distances at three differently contoured tracks in three different states. Likewise, no previous contender for the Triple Crown has had such a compressed campaign to begin the quest and no recent Derby winner has made it through the series while hoof issues lingered just below the surface, or may have been exacerbated by running on a sealed, packed down surface.

Before we all concede the next two Triple Crown races to this terrific horse, before we lose our senses and become wide-eyed, adoring fans, serious horseplayers should keep track of any hint that suggests Big Brown's hoof problems may be coming back to haunt him. At the very least, his awesome ability and vulnerable underpinnings - now forever linked to the memory of Eight Belles - will leave us holding our breath every time Big Brown goes to the post.