06/09/2008 12:00AM

History waits for Big Brown


WASHINGTON - When Big Brown attempts to complete a sweep of the Triple Crown, he will face some daunting precedents. Since Affirmed last accomplished the feat in 1978, 10 horses have come into the Belmont Stakes after winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Although some of these horses are ranked among the all-time great Thoroughbreds, all of them failed at Belmont Park.

So even though Big Brown looks almost unbeatable on paper, racing fans ought to study history as well as the past performances. For what reasons have top-class horses been thwarted in the Belmont Stakes? Are those reasons applicable to Big Brown?

Many of the failed bids for the Triple Crown can be traced to horses' unsuitability for the Belmont's 1 1/2-mile distance. Contemporary American dirt horses rarely run so far, and few of them are bred to do so.

In recent years, pedigree hasn't appeared to be an important factor in the other Triple Crown races. Horses have been winning the Kentucky Derby with sprint-oriented bloodlines that would have doomed them 25 years ago. But horses still don't win the Belmont Stakes without sufficient stamina in their genes.

The last three horses to make bids for the Triple Crown all had pedigrees emphasizing speed rather than stamina. War Emblem (2002) was a son of Our Emblem, a seven-furlong specialist. Funny Cide (2003), was a son of Distorted Humor, who excelled at seven furlongs and won only once as far as a mile. Smarty Jones (2004) was a son of Elusive Quality, also a sprinter. All of them faded in the last quarter-mile of the Belmont.

At 1 1/2 miles, a horse's running style is just as important as his pedigree, and the optimal style in the Belmont is antithetical to the style that so often prevails in the Kentucky Derby. Horses such as Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Real Quiet (1998), and Charismatic (1999) all won the Derby by taking command of the race with a strong move on the turn.

When horses attempt to seize command of the Belmont with one bold move, they turn into what seems like an endless stretch and they almost always come up short. The five aforementioned Derby winners all lost in their Triple Crown bids. Real Quiet was the archetypal failure. Kent Desormeaux - the jockey who will ride Big Brown - swooped past the field, opened a four-length lead, looked like a sure winner - and was caught at the wire by Victory Gallop.

The Belmont is typically won by even-pace runners instead of those whose forte is delivering one big burst of speed. Plodders can win it, but tractable speed horses do best of all. The last four Triple Crown winners - Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) - all led from start to finish, and all except Secretariat won by meting out their speed at a moderate pace.

Big Brown possesses the optimal running style. He is blessed with great speed, but he will dole it out as Desormeaux wishes. The jockey gunned him to the lead in the Florida Derby, but he was able to put Big Brown under early restraint in both the Derby and the Preakness. In winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown, he looked like a colt well suited to the Belmont, except for one thing: his bloodlines.

Big Brown's sire, Boundary, raced only in sprints during his eight-race career, and almost all of his offspring prefer short distances, too. Big Brown may get some moderate stamina influences from his female side, but his is anything but an ideal Belmont Stakes pedigree.

Whether horses are well suited or ill suited to the 1 1/2-mile distance, they don't run in a vacuum, and they may succeed or fail because of the quality of their competition. Sunday Silence, who had an excellent pedigree and running style, lost his bid for the Triple Crown in 1989 when Easy Goer delivered the best Belmont Stakes performance of the last 20 years. Silver Charm would have won the 1997 Belmont but for the presence of a formidable foe in Touch Gold. Conversely, horses with shaky 1 1/2-mile credentials (e.g. Bold Forbes in 1976) can sometimes hang on if the competition is weak enough.

Big Brown won the first two legs of the Triple Crown by dominating a weak group of 3-year-olds. In the Belmont he faces one serious challenger: Casino Drive, the intriguing colt who won his racing debut in Japan, shipped to the United States, and captured the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont by five lengths. Casino Drive has an extraordinary pedigree. His dam, Better Than Honour, produced the last two winners of the Belmont. Moreover, his paternal grandsire (A.P. Indy) and great grandsire (Seattle Slew) are both Belmont winners.

But does Casino Drive's talent measure up with Big Brown's? Casino Drive earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 102 winning the Peter Pan. Big Brown got a 109 in the Kentucky Derby and could surely have earned a higher number if he hadn't been parked wide on both turns.

Big Brown goes into the Belmont with an edge of five lengths or more over Casino Drive. Even if Big Brown is less effective at the longer distance, and even if Casino Drive relishes it, the favorite has such a great edge in ability that he is unlikely to be beaten. The racing world can get ready to hail the 12th Triple Crown winner.

(c) 2008 The Washington Post