08/02/2008 11:00PM

Haskell make or break for Big Brown

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Bill Denver/EquiPhoto
Big Brown resumed serious training in late June at Aqueduct and returned to the work tab on July 2.

A new beginning, or the beginning of the end?

Sunday's $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park will be one or the other for Big Brown, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner who makes his first start since being pulled up by jockey Kent Desormeaux with a quarter-mile remaining in the Belmont Stakes.

The 1 1/8-mile Haskell is the centerpiece of a 14-race card that begins at noon Eastern and includes seven other stakes, including the Grade 3 Matchmaker for fillies and mares on turf and the Grade 3 Oceanport for colts and geldings on turf. The Haskell is the last leg of an all-stakes pick four that has a guaranteed pool of $250,000. There is also a $50,000 guaranteed pool on the pick-five wager, with a 50-cent minimum bet, that begins on race 5.

The Haskell will be shown live on ESPN Classic in a 30-minute show beginning at 6 p.m. Eastern. TVG will provide daylong coverage of the entire Haskell card.

In the Haskell, Big Brown, a three-time Grade 1 winner, is the 1-2 morning-line favorite to return to the winner's circle against six rivals who have combined to win two graded stakes. On paper, this race is more of a mismatch than the Belmont Stakes appeared to be. But given what happened in the Belmont, nothing less than Big Brown's future as a racehorse is at stake when he enters the starting gate at 6:14 p.m.

"It is a make-or-break race for sure - how can it not be?" said Michael Iavarone, head of the International Equine Acquisitions Holdings Stable that owns majority interest in Big Brown. "He just got pulled up at 1-5; if that happens again, then something is wrong with the horse, and where are you going from there?"

Iavarone and his trainer, Richard Dutrow Jr., believe Big Brown is going in the right direction. After a brief freshening following the Belmont debacle, Big Brown resumed serious training in late June at Aqueduct and returned to the work tab on July 2. He has worked six times, including a strong six-furlong move on July 26 in 1:10.96.

On Friday, Big Brown blew out three furlongs in 38.66 seconds over Aqueduct's turf course. Asked why Big Brown blew out on turf, Dutrow said, "Just felt like doing it. No reasoning to it."

Iavarone said he wouldn't second-guess Dutrow's decision to work Big Brown on the turf, and even kidded, "Maybe he's setting up for a race on the grass against Curlin."

Big Brown will break from post 4 under Desormeaux. There is some speed to the inside of him with Magical Forest on the rail, and to the outside with Coal Play in post 6. However, it is quite possible that Big Brown will be on the lead, as he was in the Florida Derby and as Dutrow had hoped he'd be in the Preakness and Belmont.

"It would depend how he breaks, how they break," Dutrow said earlier in the week. "He's won on the lead; he's won from off the pace. If our horse breaks good I'm sure he'll be forwardly placed. Naturally, if he breaks bad then he's going to have to work out a trip. It should be simple enough as long as the horse runs his race."

Though Dutrow hasn't been as outspoken as he was before the Triple Crown, he says his confidence level entering this race is the same.

"If he goes out there and runs his race, he'll win," Dutrow said. "If he doesn't, he'll get beat."

When Big Brown did not run his race in the Belmont Stakes, the Nick Zito-trained Da' Tara took full advantage, recording a gate-to-wire victory at odds of 38-1. Zito will send out two of Big Brown's six challengers in Cool Coal Man and Coal Play, both owned by Robert LaPenta, the owner of Da' Tara.

Cool Coal Man has won his last two nine-furlong races on dirt, including the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth. After a ninth-place finish in the Blue Grass and a 15th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, Cool Coal Man won the Spend a Buck Stakes at Monmouth by a neck over Atoned.

Coal Play won an allowance race at Monmouth by 9 1/4 lengths on May 25, but then finished third in another allowance on that track last out. Coal Play was entered when Zito had to pull Truth Rules due to a fever.

"It's Big Brown's race to lose," Zito said. "To me, there's no pressure at all. One thing about our sport - you still have to play the game."

Todd Pletcher has won the last two Haskells with Bluegrass Cat (2006) and Any Given Saturday (2007). On Sunday, he'll send out Atoned, who has 2 wins and 7 seconds from 12 lifetime starts. Six of those seconds have come by a nose, head, or neck.

Pletcher is adding blinkers to Atoned's equipment with hopes of getting him over the hump.

"We'll see if that'll move him forward a touch," said Pletcher, who has Edgar Prado to ride. "We breezed him with the blinkers on and its hard to gauge. He's a very steady work horse; he breezed fine with them and without them. We'll know at the eighth pole if it was positive or not.

"We're eager to see how Big Brown is going to run," Pletcher added. "If he shows up and runs his 'A' race it's going to be a difficult task for everybody."

Magical Forest enters the Haskell coming off two straight stakes wins at Delaware Park. He won the Grade 3 Barbaro in front-running fashion, and after breaking from the rail he could try to outfoot Big Brown to the lead.

Nistle's Crunch, a Jersey-bred going from turf to dirt, and Alaazo, badly beaten in two allowance races, complete the field.