09/14/2008 11:00PM

Big Brown's win not so hot


NEW YORK - We can agree that it is a good thing we all don't see horse racing the same way all of the time.

This thought came to mind when the positive reviews came rolling in for Big Brown and his victory in Saturday's Monmouth Stakes. Was this one of those rare instances where universal praise was warranted?

To a certain degree. Whether or not it was an event tailor-made for him, the Monmouth Stakes was Big Brown's first start against older opponents and his first turf start in a year. Big Brown set a solid pace and gamely turned back a couple of hard-knockers after being seriously challenged in the stretch. To those left cold by Big Brown's Haskell Invitational - where his win was more a function of the unheralded Coal Play running out of gas and coming back to Big Brown than Big Brown's courageously persevering - the Monmouth Stakes was a far more satisfying performance, even if it fell one point lower (105 to 106) on the Beyer Speed Figures.

But it is easy to take issue with what the spin doctors would have you believe: That Big Brown was immensely impressive Saturday because he "toyed" with a very talented group, that he somehow managed to eclipse reigning Horse of the Year Curlin in their "paper" battle for supremacy.

To say that Big Brown toyed with his opposition Saturday seems like a dramatic overstatement. Yes, Kent Desormeaux's whip remained turned down in his right hand, but that doesn't mean much. Desormeaux had Big Brown under a fairly energetic hand ride in the late stages and in fact hit Big Brown underhanded with the whip on the right shoulder several times. And even if Desormeaux uncocked his whip, he probably wouldn't have been able to use it right-handed. Proudinsky, the runner-up, was lapped right on Big Brown, and if Desormeaux had gone roundhouse, he would have struck Proudinsky across the face. The point is, there's room to think Big Brown did not win nearly as easily as some might believe.

As to the quality of his opposition, it might have been the toughest field Big Brown has faced with the possible exception of his Kentucky Derby. But while Proudinsky, who was beaten a neck, and Shakis, who was another half-length back in third, are solid horses, they are horses with clearly established ceilings. Between them, they had made a total of nine starts in Grade or Group 1 races, and neither had finished better than third. Proudinsky and Shakis are solid Grade 2 horses, which is nothing to be ashamed of. But they aren't one bit more.

In the days leading up to the Monmouth Stakes, trainer Rick Dutrow stated unequivocally that despite winning two-thirds of the Triple Crown, Big Brown is a much better horse on turf than dirt. If that's true, then such horses as Proudinsky and Shakis, who even in this year's soft male turf division are far removed from the top of their class, should never have gotten close to Big Brown - if he is the horse his most ardent admirers make him out to be. It makes you wonder what might happen when Big Brown meets a legitimate Grade 1 horse, whether it be on turf, dirt, or synthetic. But the hope is that that will happen soon enough.

Finally, the notion that winning the Monmouth Stakes advanced Big Brown's position vis a vis Curlin is just plain silly. Sure, Big Brown, who beat nine nobodies on the grass in his debut last year, is now 2 for 2 on turf and Curlin remains 0 for 1. But given how close Proudinsky and Shakis got to him, it's hard to imagine Big Brown doing better than Curlin did in his one turf start when he split 2006 Breeders' Cup Turf winner Red Rocks and 2004 Breeders' Cup Turf winner Better Talk Now when second in the Grade 1 Man o' War Stakes. And the Curlin camp can point out that his first start against older opponents last fall came in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. When he won it, Curlin beat an older rival in Lawyer Ron who was coming off overwhelming victories in the Grade 1 Woodward and Grade 1 Whitney Handicap.

Music Note's win a mismatch

Just how easily or not Big Brown won Saturday might be a matter of opinion, but there is no question how easily Music Note won Saturday's Grade 1 Gazelle Stakes at Belmont Park. In one of the biggest Grade 1 mismatches of recent times after the gate scratch of Country Star, Music Note won so easily that she could have taken the Gazelle by twice the 8o1/2-length margin she settled on. The Gazelle proved nothing, of course, other than the fact that Music Note is a very nice filly, as is Proud Spell, the filly who edged her in last month's thrilling Alabama Stakes.

* And speaking of very nice horses, Charitable Man proved he is all that with his popular victory in the Grade 2 Futurity Stakes on Saturday at Belmont. The Futurity turned into a tactical affair, with "clever" race riding all over the place. And despite having to go five wide, Charitable Man actually had the good trip with the clear outside run. Still, the fact that Charitable Man came from near last to win decisively after showing high speed in his debut romp at Saratoga last month marked unmistakable development in the early life of a top 2-year-old prospect.