05/19/2008 12:00AM

How good, really, is Big Brown?


BALTIMORE - We can all agree that Big Brown was tremendously impressive winning Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. But there are degrees to everything. And proclamations in the wake of Big Brown's big Preakness score that he might be the greatest American racehorse in a generation, that he might be the best seen since Secretariat, that he might complete his sweep of the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes by an even bigger margin than the 31 lengths Secretariat won his Belmont Stakes by in 1973, range from premature to way over the top.

It is understandable why this is happening. Big Brown is an immense talent who stands at the brink of becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years, and he still hasn't even been challenged in a race yet. He captures the imagination because no one has any idea yet what his limits might be. He could easily be the superhorse and the Triple Crown winner fans have craved for so long. And his timing couldn't be better, either, what with the sport currently under attack from quarters that know nothing about it.

Of course, Big Brown wouldn't be in this position if he didn't win Saturday. And I agree with Gary Stevens, who said on the NBC telecast that Big Brown showed him something when he broke the race open turning for home that he hadn't seen in 27 years of riding - this colt has an incredible turn of foot. Still, I don't think what Big Brown did on Saturday, as impressive as it was, quite warrants the dramatic escalation of hyperbole that has occurred in the aftermath of the Preakness.

Let's pause for a moment, take a breath, and put our feet back on the ground. Before we concede the Triple Crown to Big Brown, let alone call his win margin in the Belmont, there are a couple of points about the Preakness that shouldn't be overlooked. First, the field Big Brown humbled was not good. Not a single Grade 1 winner opposed him. A third of the total field was still eligible to an entry-level allowance race. All but one of Big Brown's opponents had yet to crack the triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure barrier. With all the talk over whether he would be able to handle the quick two-week turnaround, Big Brown was supposed to crush this field. That he did what he was supposed to do is to his credit. At the same time, it would be naive to think the inadequacies of the Preakness field weren't an important contributing factor to the manner by which Big Brown won.

The other point concerns Big Brown's final time of 1:54.80 for the 1o3/16 miles. That equated to a Beyer Figure of 100. That's not fast. It is, in fact, the lowest winning Preakness Beyer since Prairie Bayou's in 1993. Yes, it is true that Big Brown was taken under wraps the final sixteenth of a mile. That might have slowed Big Brown's final time to some extent, although it should be noted that there has long been a debate over whether horses who win easily like Big Brown did would have run significantly faster if asked, for it is unclear really how much of an impact a 110-pound jockey throttling down a 1,200-pound racehorse from full flight in the late stages of a race will have on final time.

Many anticipated a regression of some sort from Big Brown from the Derby to the Preakness, and for good reason, given how powerfully he ran in Kentucky and how quickly he had to race back. Perhaps that regression manifested itself in Big Brown's Beyer drop from his 109 in the Derby. If that is indeed the case, one should not assume that Big Brown now has his regression out of the way and is poised for a bounce back in the Belmont. Having to race back in three weeks and go 1 1/2 miles, and make a third start in five weeks, is not exactly a recipe for a figure rebound.

And then, there is the matter of Belmont Stakes-bound Casino Drive. The undefeated half-brother to 2006 Belmont winner Jazil and three-quarter brother to last year's Belmont winner, the filly Rags to Riches, could not have been at much more than 75 percent peak form for his U.S. debut, when he won the Peter Pan Stakes over the Belmont Park main track, a surface Big Brown has yet to encounter. Yet, Casino Drive won the Peter Pan most impressively, by almost six lengths, and earned a 101 Beyer, which he almost certainly will improve on in the Belmont.

None of this is meant to suggest that yours truly is ready to jump off the Big Brown bandwagon just when everyone who hadn't already done so is piling on, although I reserve the right to do so. This is not a situation like the one after the imperfect Funny Cide's big Preakness win over a subpar field in 2003, when he had a superior opponent in Empire Maker waiting for him in the Belmont. I do believe Big Brown is a freak. But Casino Drive might be one, too. In fact, the strong possibility exists that Casino Drive could be by far the best horse Big Brown has ever faced. And when you consider the timing involved - Casino Drive peaking toward his goal, Big Brown making his third start in five weeks - it's not hard to envision Casino Drive testing Big Brown in the Belmont in ways he has never been tested before. If that comes to pass, and Big Brown stands up to the challenge, it would be a lot more revealing and rewarding than the Preakness on many levels, and worthy of all the hype you can throw at it.