03/26/2008 11:00PM

Defeated by the draw?

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Bob Coglianese/NYRA
Big Brown's dazzling first-level allowance win at Gulfstream Park on March 5 created enormous buzz.

For a horse who has won just two races six months apart, Big Brown has become the buzz horse of this year's Kentucky Derby. Off those two wins, including a victory March 5 in a first-level allowance race at Gulfstream Park, he has been installed as the morning-line favorite for the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby on Saturday at Gulfstream.

Nothing has stopped him so far. Not his feet, which have been plagued by quarter cracks in both front hooves. Not a change of trainers, from Patrick Reynolds to Richard Dutrow Jr. following his debut win last September. Not a switch of surfaces, from grass in his debut to dirt in his second start. And certainly not the inferior horses he has dusted by a combined margin of 24 lengths.

But in order to make the field for the May 3 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Big Brown is going to have to clear several significant hurdles on Saturday, most notably a steep rise in competition and a dreadful post position.

Big Brown landed the outside post when 12 3-year-olds were entered on Wednesday for the Florida Derby. Many of the other well-regarded runners in the race are outside, too, including Face the Cat (post 11), Majestic Warrior (10), Hey Byrn (9), and Elysium Fields (8).

Bill Mott, the trainer of Majestic Warrior, was disappointed in the draw. "It's as far outside as I could be to still consider running," Mott said from the Payson Park training center in Florida, where he is based in the winter. "At least it's not 11 or 12. Right now, we're in."

Ah, posts 11 and 12. Going 1 1/8 miles on the main track at Gulfstream, with a short run to the first turn, the outside posts are like the Bermuda Triangle. Since Gulfstream reconfigured its track four years ago, posts 11 (0 for 18) and 12 (0 for 11) are a combined 0 for 29 at 1 1/8 miles, the distance of the Florida Derby. Barbaro won from post 10 two years ago, but he was Barbaro.

Yet despite those grim stats, Dutrow professed no concern over the post.

"I like it," he said via telephone. "He's not going to get in trouble in the race. As long as he breaks good, I think it's going to be to our advantage. It eliminates any chance of him getting into trouble. He'll get a clean trip, which is half the battle going in.

"Look, I wish he was outside in a seven-horse field, but we're going to take it. We're not going to cry. We get to play the intimidator from out there, instead of being intimidated. We are ready, babe."

Chuck Streva, the line-maker at Gulfstream, made Big Brown the 3-1 favorite, with Elysium Fields next at 4-1. The Florida Derby is the 10th race on a 12-race card, and it will be shown live on ESPN2 in a one-hour telecast beginning at 5op.m. Eastern.

Why all the fuss over Big Brown? Both of his wins were devastating. In his first start, going 1o1/16 miles on turf at Saratoga on Sept. 3, he romped by 11 1/4 lengths. "By the time he was cooling out, six people were ready to buy him," Dutrow said.

Paul Pompa, who owned Big Brown, sold a majority interest in the colt to New York-based IEAH (International Equine Acquisitions Holdings) Stables, which teamed with Dutrow last year to win the Breeders' Cup Mile with Kip Deville.

When Michael Iavarone, the co-president of IEAH, phoned Dutrow to ask the trainer what he thought of Big Brown, Dutrow said he deadpanned, "I can find a stall for that one."

Dutrow immediately pointed Big Brown toward the inaugural BC Juvenile Turf, but had to scrap plans for that race when Big Brown came up with a quarter crack in his left front foot. "It took 45 days to get over that," Dutrow said.

Dutrow had Big Brown ready to run early this meet at Gulfstream in January, but then Big Brown developed another quarter crack, this time in his right front foot. "We had to take another 45 days," Dutrow said.

Big Brown finally got back to the races on March 5. The race was scheduled to be on the turf, but, serendipitously, was moved to the main track because of rain. Big Brown cruised home in front by 12 3/4 lengths in that one-turn mile race, and suddenly became a candidate for the Florida Derby, and the Kentucky Derby.

As impressed as observers were of Big Brown's last race, Dutrow was even more so, because he knew Big Brown had come into the race off an abbreviated work tab.

"He took our breaths away turning for home the other day," Dutrow said. "He still had grass shoes on. I never expected to see that the other day."

But the Derby trail is littered with horses whose light campaigns tripped them up come the first Saturday in May. Even Curlin, last year's Horse of the Year, could not win the Derby. He came into it with a mere three starts, as would Big Brown. Unlike Curlin, Big Brown has the advantage of having raced at 2.

The Florida Derby is a make-or-break race for Big Brown. It will be his stakes debut, and his last start before the Kentucky Derby, so he won't get another chance to earn any graded stakes money. Right now, that account is at zero dollars. Big Brown will likely need to finish at least second, which is worth $200,000, to have a shot at making the Derby field should more than the maximum 20 horses enter the race, in which case graded stakes earnings are used as a tie-breaker.

Dutrow, who trained 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam, is so excited about Big Brown that he is remaining in Florida rather than traveling to Dubai, where he has the sprinter Benny the Bull (Golden Shaheen) and Diamond Stripes (Godolphin Mile) racing in rich races Saturday. There's more on the horizon. Kip Deville is scheduled to return to action next month at Keeneland.

"I've got a lot of good things happening," Dutrow said.

In other Derby developments Wednesday:

* Trainer David Carroll said Denis of Cork, the Southwest Stakes winner, would have his final prep in the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne on April 5. Carroll's other Derby contender, Blackberry Road, will head to Oaklawn Park for the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 12, and Calvin Borel will be back aboard, Carroll said.

* Trainer Paulo Lobo said he was "90 percent certain" that Gayego, the third-place finisher in the San Felipe Stakes, would make his next start in the Arkansas Derby.

* The only other graded stakes this weekend is the $2 million United Arab Emirates Derby in Dubai, which is populated largely by South American-breds who can race as 3-year-olds in Dubai, but are not eligible to the Derby. The two most prominent Derby prospects in the race are Massive Drama, third in a pair of stakes races this winter at Santa Anita, and Numaany.

WHO'S HOT: There was very little change from a week ago. The lone newcomer to the Derby Watch top 25 is Adriano, who won the Lane's End Stakes last Saturday at Turfway Park. He is 40-1 on the Kentucky Derby future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper.

WHO'S NOT: The lone deletion from the list was Sierra Sunset, who was found to have an ankle chip several days after his victory in the Rebel Stakes.

ON THE BUBBLE: Now here's where it could get interesting. There is a large field of 12 entered in the Florida Derby on Saturday at Gulfstream Park, including Hey Byrn, whose knees may be skinned from repeatedly knocking on the door the past several weeks. A top performance in this race will move him, at long last, onto the list. And even though Big Brown is currently in the top 25, he has zero graded stakes earnings, so he's truly on the bubble. He needs to earn enough money in the Florida Derby to remain on the list. The United Arab Emirates Derby is also being run on Saturday, in Dubai, and while there are no serious Derby contenders in the field, the race's $2 million purse could help propel such 3-year-olds as Massive Drama or Numaany into the Derby.

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch