05/09/2008 11:00PM

Casino Drive spices up Belmont


ELMONT, N.Y. - Oh brother - and sister - did the Belmont Stakes just get a whole lot more interesting.

Casino Drive, a half-brother to recent Belmont Stakes winners Jazil and the filly Rags to Riches, announced his presence as a major contender for the June 7 Belmont Stakes - and a potential Triple Crown roadblock to Big Brown - with an impressive 5 3/4-length victory in Saturday's Grade 2, $200,000 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park.

Mint Lane, who set a fast pace under Eibar Coa, held second by one-half length over Ready's Echo, who raced last for the first five furlongs. Ready's Echo was followed in the order of finish by Golden Spikes, Cosmic, Spark Candle, Tomcito, Deputyville, and Fast Talking.

Casino Drive is a son of Mineshaft out of the mare Better Than Honour, who is the mother of Jazil and Rags to Riches. Casino Drive raced just once prior to the Peter Pan, scoring an 11 1/2-length maiden win in Japan in February. His connections were using the Peter Pan as a prep for the Belmont, but had indicated that they weren't sure he was going to be able to win the race.

Despite acting up in the paddock, Casino Drive was more than prepared for a strong effort Saturday. Under Kent Desormeaux - the regular rider of Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown - Casino Drive saved all the ground after breaking from the rail and raced in fourth position while Mint Lane set fractions of 23.08 seconds, 46.31, and 1:10.47 for the opening six furlongs.

Approaching the quarter pole, Desormeaux took Casino Drive off the rail and he adroitly split the duo of Mint Lane and Golden Spikes turning for home. With one crack of Desormeaux's left-handed whip and three of his right, Casino Drive drew clear and was taken in hand late. He covered 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.87 over a drying out track labeled fast and returned $4.50 as the favorite.

"He is a phenomenal talent, we got our hands full," said Desormeaux, who hopes to win next Saturday's Preakness with Big Brown and come to the Belmont with a chance at the Triple Crown. "He's got that stride; that's what I call it, that stride."

Desormeaux then spotted his agent, Mike Sellitto, and said, "There's your competition buddy, wooo!"

Nobutaka Tada, the managing director for owner Hidetoshi Yamamoto, said he expects Casino Drive to take a step forward in the Belmont.

"He was good, but he was not top form,'' Tada said. "There's so much [room] for him to improve.''