05/17/2008 12:00AM

A lot is riding on Big Brown

Barbara D. Livingston
Big Brown gallops under exercise Michelle Nevin at Pimlico on Thursday, after arriving on Wednesday night.

BALTIMORE - While the eyes of racing are squarely focused on Big Brown for the 133rd Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, the eyes of the sports world are squarely focused on horse racing.

Two weeks after a Kentucky Derby that revealed the highest of racing highs, and the most gut-wrenching of lows, Derby winner Big Brown will put his unbeaten streak on the line, and attempt to keep his Triple Crown hopes alive, when he faces 11 rivals in the Preakness.

Pimlico is the track where two years ago Barbaro, that year's Derby winner, fractured his right hind leg in the Preakness, beginning an eight-month odyssey that ended with him being euthanized due to complications from the hoof disease laminitis. The death of the filly Eight Belles just moments after her runner-up finish in the Derby two weeks ago at Churchill Downs reopened a debate on many aspects of racing, pitting racing's supporters against those who would like it banned, or at least severely overhauled.

It will be against that backdrop that Big Brown will step onto the track at Pimlico on Saturday, carrying far more than 126 pounds, including jockey Kent Desormeaux. It is not a stretch to say that many in racing will be holding their breath until all 12 runners have successfully completed the 1 3/16 miles and been safely tucked away in their stalls after the race.

Big Brown will be a heavy favorite to pick up the first prize of $600,000 from the $1 million purse.

Big Brown has won all four of his starts by a combined 33 3/4 lengths, the smallest margin being the 4 3/4 lengths by which he won the Derby. Of the 19 horses Big Brown faced at Churchill Downs, only one - Gayego, who finished 17th - is here for a rematch. The other 11 Preakness runners all bypassed the Derby.

This will be the first and probably only time that Big Brown, a son of Boundary, will have to race on just two weeks' rest. For Big Brown to lose, he likely will have to regress significantly off his Derby performance, and one of his rivals will have to run the race of his life.

"It's not a party when you have to run back in two weeks," said Richard Dutrow Jr., who trains Big Brown. "You go through a lot to get ready for races like this. But I feel like I have the best horse, the fastest horse, who is proven at the distance. If our horse can get over the two weeks, he's going to be tough to beat."

Big Brown arrived at Pimlico on Wednesday, shortly after 8 p.m., following a flight from Louisville, Ky. He got his first feel of the Pimlico main track about 12 hours later Thursday morning, when he effortlessly galloped 1 3/8 miles with exercise rider Michelle Nevin.

"He was comfortable, cool, and relaxed," Dutrow said Thursday morning. "I'm happy as can be right now.

"I figure the lighter I train him, the better," Dutrow said. "I don't want to squeeze anything out of him. I want to go as slow and easy as I can between races."

Big Brown galloped with bell boots on his front feet to protect hooves that have had quarter cracks. Dutrow said Big Brown would wear the front leg wraps that he had in the Derby in the Preakness, too.

Thursday at noon, Big Brown had new glue-on shoes affixed to his front feet by Ian McKinlay, a noted equine blacksmith.

Dutrow has started to look over the horizon. If Big Brown wins the Preakness, he will head to the June 7 Belmont Stakes in New York with a chance to become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to sweep the Triple Crown.

"We've got two more races we have to get through," Dutrow said. "I hope he doesn't have to get on his belly. I want something left for the Belmont.

"In the Belmont, you'll have some fresher, better horses. It'll be his third race in five weeks," Dutrow said. "The Belmont is going to be the one we really have to deal with. The Preakness looks like it's in our favor."

Big Brown landed post 7 in the original 13-horse field, which was reduced to 12 on Friday after Lexington winner Behindatthebar was scratched because of a bruise in his left front foot. Trainer Todd Pletcher said Behindatthebar will now be pointed for a possible run in the June 7 Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown.

Behindatthebar had drawn post 5 for the Preakness, so all horses outside of him, including Big Brown, will now move in one slot in the starting gate.

Gayego, who won the Arkansas Derby before his poor try in the Kentucky Derby, returned to California, then shipped here on Wednesday. But that trip is not nearly as bad as what he encountered in the Derby.

"He missed the break," said Paulo Lobo, who trains Gayego. "He got squeezed right after that, then he got rank. Near the wire the first time he clipped heels. After all of that, the race was finished for him."

Kentucky Bear was third in the Blue Grass Stakes in his last start. He entered the Derby, but was not among the top 20 horses in terms of earnings in graded stakes races, so he was one of four excluded from the race. He has trained sensationally in recent weeks, and his trainer, Reade Baker, has seemingly been trying to keep up with Dutrow in the war of words.

"How come he can't bounce now?" Baker said, hoping Big Brown might regress off his Derby effort.

Big Brown "certainly was the best of those horses," Baker said of the Derby, "but that doesn't make him better than anybody else."

Kentucky Bear was seventh in the Fountain of Youth Stakes prior to the Blue Grass.

"He bled and grabbed himself and got bounced around on the first turn," Baker said.

Yankee Bravo turned in one of his best races in his lone try on dirt, when third in the Louisiana Derby. He was fourth in the Santa Anita Derby in his last start.

"He just didn't kick in the last little part," said Paddy Gallagher, who trains Yankee Bravo. "He flattened out. I was a little disappointed. But he still ran a decent race."

Hey Byrn finished 15 3/4 lengths behind Big Brown in the Florida Derby, then won the Holy Bull Stakes. His owner, Bea Oxenberg, was to celebrate her 87th birthday on Friday.

Riley Tucker was third and Racecar Rhapsody fourth in the Lexington.

Macho Again won the Derby Trial in his last start, but was well-beaten in his two previous tries around two turns.

Tres Borrachos was third in the Arkansas Derby, 4 3/4 lengths behind Gayego.

Icabad Crane won the Federico Tesio Stakes here on April 19, making him the only horse in the Preakness with a race, and a win, over this track.

Giant Moon won his first four starts, but has lost two straight, including a fourth-place finish most recently in the Wood Memorial.

Stevil was fourth in the Blue Grass, his fifth straight loss following a debut win against maidens.

The Preakness is the 12th race on a 13-race card that begins at 10:30 a.m. Eastern and is scheduled to end at 7:15 p.m., making it the longest day in American racing. It is the final leg of a $1 million-guaranteed pick four wager. Post time for the Preakness is scheduled for 6:15. It will be televised live by NBC during a two-hour telecast that begins at 4:30.

A crowd of more than 100,000 is expected to stuff itself into Pimlico. They might have to dodge a few raindrops. Thunderstorms and rain were forecast for Friday, according to Weather.com, and there was a 30 percent chance of lingering showers for Saturday, with a high of 73 degrees.