06/03/2008 12:00AM

Collective sigh of relief

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Barbara D. Livingston
Big Brown, under Michelle Nevin, works five furlongs in 1:00.03 on Tuesday morning at Belmont without aggravating his quarter crack.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Big Brown put his best foot forward on Tuesday morning at Belmont Park, turning in his final workout for the 140th Belmont Stakes in workmanlike fashion that had his connections breathing easier.

The time of the five-furlong drill - officially clocked in 1:00.03 - was solid, but was not nearly as important as how he came out of it. Big Brown, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, has been battling a quarter crack on the inside of his left front hoof. Immediately following the work, his connections seemed satisfied that he had cleared another hurdle en route to his Triple Crown bid on Saturday.

"He's right on target. Couldn't be any better," said his trainer, Richard Dutrow Jr.

The sunny pronouncements from Dutrow could not, however, hide the anxiousness in Big Brown's camp surrounding Tuesday's work. The workout was delayed by at least two days because of the time needed to treat the quarter crack when it first developed more than a week ago. And the work will be the only one Big Brown has in the three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont.

"I didn't get much sleep last night," admitted Michael Iavarone, the co-president of the IEAH Stable syndicate which co-owns Big Brown.

"I was a nervous wreck," said Michelle Nevin, Big Brown's exercise rider. "I'm so glad it's over. I know I'm very relieved."

Nevin showed again why Dutrow puts her on his best horses. Dutrow wanted Nevin to work Big Brown in about 1:00. It was not an easy task, because Big Brown was eager to do more when he first glided into the work on the backstretch. But Nevin kept him under control as he clicked off furlongs right around 12 seconds each, and the final time was spot on.

Big Brown came on the track at 8:55 a.m. Eastern, shortly after the renovation break. He wore protective bandages on all four legs. He also had patches under the bandages to protect his heels, which are prone to being scraped - commonly known as "running down" - on a sandy surface like that at Belmont Park; Dutrow said Big Brown would wear the patches and leg wraps in the race, too.

After standing quietly for five minutes near the 1 1/4-mile pole on the clubhouse turn, Nevin let Big Brown go into a controlled jog. As Big Brown passed the six-furlong pole, he noticeably quickened, and he was moving as fast as Nevin wanted by the time he got to the five-furlong pole.

"He was looking to do something," Nevin said. "He was trying to get away from me early. I didn't want him to do too much. I tried to sit against him. I'm very, very happy with him. He switched leads perfectly, with no hesitation. He was pretty strong today. He was bored the last couple of days," when Big Brown merely galloped.

"I expected him to do good," Dutrow said. "I was hoping to get the time he got. I'm as happy as we can be."

Big Brown is still not out of the woods, though. Although everything seemingly has gone right since foot specialist Ian McKinlay first began working on Big Brown for this quarter crack, there is always the risk that a work will jar something. In addition, the crack still needs to be patched, McKinlay having advised Dutrow not to patch it before the work. Horses run and win every day at tracks across the country with quarter crack patches, but with an unbeaten colt going for the Triple Crown, every step is under a microscope.

"For all the cracks I've seen in 30 years, this is nothing special," McKinlay said. "What's special is he's a special horse. And it's magnified because of the race."

McKinlay said the quarter crack is a 4 on a scale of 10, with 10 being a worst-case scenario.

"The quarter crack is not an issue," Iavarone insisted. "Ian's done an incredible job from the second this thing happened."

Big Brown, according to Dutrow, was scheduled to walk around the barn's shed row on Wednesday, return to the track to jog on Thursday, then have a routine gallop on Friday. He will not go to the track on Saturday morning, Dutrow said.

"I called Ian after the work and said everything went good, I didn't see any issue at all," Dutrow said.

McKinlay said the foot will be cleaned out before adhesives are put over the injured area. He said Big Brown will wear a padded shoe, "to remove concussion."

Nevin said Big Brown felt as good as ever on Tuesday.

"He has not changed one little bit since before the Derby and before the Preakness," Nevin said.

"No matter what's thrown at him," Dutrow said, "he's gonna be ready."

In other Belmont developments:

* Icabad Crane, who was third in the Preakness, arrived at Belmont on Tuesday after a van ride from the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland.

* Anak Nakal and Da' Tara were scheduled to be sent by van from Saratoga on Wednesday, and both Denis of Cork and Macho Again were scheduled to fly from Kentucky on Wednesday. Denis of Cork and Macho Again originally were to fly on Tuesday, but severe thunderstorms in central Kentucky area pushed the flight back one day.

- additional reporting by David Grening