07/25/2008 12:00AM

This cast has much left to prove


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes here Sunday drew the winners of the Belmont Stakes, Wood Memorial, Dwyer, Derby Trial, and Louisiana Derby, an impressive-sounding lineup. But someone has to win those races every year, and the question of the race remains the same one that has surrounded the 3-year-old colts of 2008 since the Triple Crown began: Other than Big Brown, is there a genuinely top-rate 3-year-old in this year's class?

It's getting awfully late in the summer for that question still to be on the table, but it's a legitimate one. Even Big Brown's biggest fans concede he beat no one special in his lopsided Derby and Preakness victories, races in which no other colt earned a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure or got within five lengths of the winner. That followed a spring in which every major Derby prep except Big Brown's Florida Derby seemed to end with a bunched-up finish, a slow final time, and a rotten speed figure.

Apologists for some of the seemingly slowpoke winners offered up the usual excuses. Colonel John and Pyro, the second and third choices in the Derby, were widely described as such visually impressive winners that they had to be merely toying with their opponents, and would run much faster when they really had to. Then Colonel John and Pyro ran right to their mediocre preps in the Derby, suggesting that maybe this was just a very weak crop beyond Big Brown.

We'll find out a little more about Pyro in the Jim Dandy, and Colonel John is being pointed for the Travers, despite a comeback third in the Swaps that was as undistinguished as his victories this spring. And if the jury's still out on Pyro and Colonel John, it has barely begun deliberations on Da' Tara, a classic winner after his 38-1 Belmont Stakes victory but also a colt with a lifetime record of 2 for 8. He, too, has yet to join the triple-digit Beyer club, and could go off a tepid third choice in the Jim Dandy behind Pyro and even Mint Lane, the Dwyer winner.

There will be an interesting reference point for the Jim Dandy in the form of the $90,000 Henry Walton Stakes for 3-year-olds who have not won a graded stakes this year, which will be run half an hour before the Jim Dandy on Sunday's 10-race card. It's unusual to have back-to-back stakes for 3-year-olds at the same distance, and some would argue that it was counterproductive to card the Walton at all; without it, there might have been a field of 12 in the Jim Dandy.

As for Big Brown, he will run in the Haskell next Sunday, and his handlers haven't ruled out a Travers run if he returns as the same horse he was before his Belmont Stakes debacle. There's a much more exciting scenario, though, that could still have Big Brown running at Saratoga: Why not a Big Brown-Curlin matchup in the Woodward on Aug. 30? That's the race every racing fan in the Western world wants to see, and what better stage than Saratoga on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend?

It has to be a good move for Big Brown, who would have little to lose as an underdog facing Curlin and little to gain in the Travers beating the same 3-year-olds he trounced this spring. Now we just have to get Jess Jackson, Curlin's principal owner, on board with the idea. Everyone's been telling Rick Dutrow to keep quiet and tone down his Triple Crown bluster, but maybe his muzzle should be removed long enough for him to repeat some of the smack he was talking about Curlin before the Belmont, like the line about how Curlin couldn't even beat a filly in last year's Belmont. Maybe Dutrow could sufficiently rile up Jackson that the owner would stop toying with the charming but hopeless idea of sending Curlin to Paris for the Arc de Triomphe.

Curlin could close out his career like the Hall of Famer he's close to being, running as a 4-year-old in the Woodward and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, just like Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid did, and leaving the synthetic Breeders' Cup Classic to Big Brown. Personally, I think Curlin would beat Big Brown by daylight in the Woodward, but it sure would be fun to argue about that for the next five weeks and then find out on the racetrack who's the better horse.