08/05/2008 11:00PM

Big Brown's Haskell not bad at all


PHILADELPHIA - Maybe it says something about horse racing. Or maybe it says something about us.

Seconds after Big Brown crossed the finish line in Sunday's Haskell Invitational, everybody kind of looked at each other sadly. Heads shook knowingly. This was not the same horse we saw in May.

And Big Brown won the race by nearly two lengths, his fourth Gradeo1 of the year in just six starts.

Just imagine the reaction if those Big Brown wheels had continued to spin like they seemed to be spinning at the top of the stretch. In our instant-gratification world, there is never any time for context. It is either good or bad. There is no time to consider the opposition, the circumstances, or, in the cold light of day, the Beyer Speed Figure.

I took a look at the tote board, the margins, the history, and concluded that Big Brown probably had run a figure between 105 and 108. It was, in fact, a 107, his fifth triple-digit Beyer in five dirt starts, if you don't include the Belmont Stakes, where he earned no figure because he was pulled up for reasons that Kent Desormeaux has yet to adequately explain.

Whatever the Belmont was about, there should not have been questions about Big Brown's authenticity. No

3-year-old, coming off one grass race the previous summer, after being held off the track the entire month of January, should be able to dominate the way Big Brown dominated from March 5 to May 17.

Regardless of the competition or lack of it, Big Brown was dazzling in every way - outside posts, big moves, easy acceleration, big margins of victory.

What Big Brown did, however, was create unrealistic expectations when just winning was no longer going to be good enough.

I contend that the Haskell trip, chasing and then eventually passing the lone speed, is one of the tougher trips out there because there is no time to relax. Yet, there was Big Brown running down Coal Play in the final 75 yards. I liked the race when I saw it. I like it even more now that I have had time to think about.

But I do understand the reaction. So does trainer Rick Dutrow.

"He set the bar so high,'' Dutrow said. "He's a special horse. I don't care what anybody says.''

I agree on both counts. Just don't get to "great" yet for Big Brown. There is time for that, but let's try not to anoint. Let's enjoy.

By the Beyers, Big Brown is a big deal - not at elite level yet, but very consistent at a high level - 106 allowance race, 106 Florida Derby, 109 Kentucky Derby, 100 Preakness, 107 Haskell.

What if, as top 3-year-olds have done in the past (remember Curlin in 2007), Big Brown makes a big Beyer jump in the fall? It certainly could happen.

Too many were focused on the undistinguished opposition Sunday. The Beyers get beyond that.

It should have been obvious that Coal Play was very fast early by virtue of his having chased Samba Rooster - who made the lead in all seven starts - and the very swift Eaton's Gift in the Swale.

Coal Play had earned a 102 Beyer when loose in a May 25 allowance at Monmouth. That told you the colt was capable under the right circumstances. The Haskell was again the right circumstances.

Coal Play and Big Brown were the only horses in the race with real early speed, and Desormeaux made just the right call when Joe Bravo on Coal Play was clearly intent on making the front no matter what.

That Coal Play kept running really should not have been a shock. The colt gets very brave with the lead. Frankly, the surprise was that Big Brown ran him down. Nobody could have had a clue that would happen, because Big Brown had not faced a similar scenario.

"He hooked a horse that was ready for Big Brown,'' Dutrow said. "That horse took us right to the hoop. It's probably going to happen again."

If Big Brown can win like that, why can't he win if he gets a contested pace? Or win if he is the pace?

I am a charter member of the Curlin fan club. Today, regardless of what Dutrow says or thinks, Curlin is simply faster. By the numbers, it is not that close.

Now, in late October, if it comes to that, these two may be a lot closer. What if in the Breeders' Cup Classic of our dreams, the race comes up without much pace (will Commentator be around then?) and Big Brown - after being trained like Dutrow loves to train them, with proper spacing and not the rush to get into and win Triple Crown races - gets loose on the lead?

If the Haskell taught us any lesson we should all have learned a long time ago, it's that early speed is always dangerous. And if the horse with the early speed has already proved dangerous (and won four Grade 1 races), it might be best to pay closer attention and not make too many negative assumptions.