05/23/2008 12:00AM

No challengers from West for Big Brown

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Barbara D. Livingston
Colonel John will make his next start in the Grade 2 Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park on July 12.

Sunday Silence vs. Easy Goer. Real Quiet vs. Victory Gallop. Alysheba vs. Bet Twice. Some of the most compelling Triple Crown chases in the past three decades were classic East vs. West confrontations, the best being the last time the Triple Crown was swept, 30 years ago, when Affirmed beat Alydar in three straight thrillers.

This year, however, the best horses from the West have hightailed it back to California, leaving the 140th Belmont Stakes on June 7 - in which Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown will attempt to become the 12th Triple Crown winner - a match between the East (Big Brown) and the Far East (Casino Drive).

A little more than three weeks ago, conventional wisdom held that the California-based 3-year-olds were a formidable group. Form of the California runners had held up well through the spring. Sierra Sunset left California and won the Rebel Stakes, then Gayego invaded Oaklawn and won the Arkansas Derby. Colonel John ran so well in the Santa Anita Derby that he was sent off as the second choice to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby.

In the Derby, though, Colonel John finished sixth, Bob Black Jack - the Santa Anita Derby runner-up - was 16th, and Gayego finished 17th in the field of 20. Only Gayego went on to the Preakness, where he finished 11th in a field of 12.

None of them is going on to the Belmont, nor are any new shooters - like El Gato Malo, the Lone Star Derby winner - diving in. All the horses currently certain for the Belmont - Anak Nakal, Big Brown, Casino Drive, Denis of Cork, Macho Again, Icabad Crane, Tale of Ekati, and Tomcito - have never raced in California. The only possible Belmont runner with any California connection is Lexington Stakes winner Behindatthebar, who was based in California during the winter, but his status is questionable after being withdrawn from the Preakness with a bruised foot.

Colonel John was unquestionably the most accomplished Derby runner based in California, but he took the first off-ramp from the Triple Crown trail. After a post-Derby freshening in Lexington, Ky., at the WinStar Farm of Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt, where he was born and raised, Colonel John only days ago returned to Santa Anita. His trainer, Eoin Harty, on Friday said the Grade 2, $350,000 Swaps Stakes on July 12 at Hollywood Park is the next target for Colonel John, followed by the Grade 1, $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 23.

The 1 1/2-mile Belmont, Harty said, "was never part of the equation" following the Derby, in which Colonel John was beaten 14 1/4 lengths after getting bumped solidly at the start, then racing wide on the final turn.

"It's a mile and a half, and I'm not sure my horse wants to go a mile and a half," Harty said from Keeneland, where he was overseeing the runners he has there. "It's not like we were an unlucky second or third in the Derby. He was well-beaten, and he had a rough trip. We came up with an alternative game plan."

The first part of that plan was some downtime at WinStar.

"He did some swimming and a little bit of light training," Harty said. "He ate a lot of grass. He got turned out in a small pen. He got to be a kid again. WinStar is so close to Churchill, it was a good opportunity to give him a rest."

The second part of that plan involved looking at Colonel John's career from a long-term prospective. Harty has always maintained that Colonel John, because he is light-framed, is best with plenty of time between starts. The Swaps is 10 weeks after the Derby, and then the Travers comes another six weeks later.

"Looking at the horse's future, we felt it was best to get him back to California, back on a synthetic track, get him ready for the Swaps, and then try Big Brown again in the Travers," Harty said.

Harty said the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth on Aug. 3 was ruled out "because of the timing in comparison to the Travers."

Harty said he "can't envision anyone beating Big Brown" in the Belmont.

Neither, apparently, can anyone else from California.

In other Belmont developments Friday:

* After visiting the Belmont Park paddock for the first time, Big Brown galloped once around Belmont's 1 1/2-mile oval shortly after 5:30 a.m. Regular exercise rider Michelle Nevin was aboard. As he usually does, Big Brown galloped with bell boots on his front feet.

"I don't want him to grab his quarter," trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. said. "He went good."

* At 6:30 a.m., Peter Pan winner Casino Drive also galloped once around Belmont's main track, a longer move than usual, racing manager Nobutaka Tada said.

Casino Drive goes out with his stablemates Spark Candle and Champagne Squall. Prior to galloping, the three walk the barn area for 30 to 40 minutes. After the gallop, the trio walk the barn area for an hour.

"We warm them up and then we cool them down," Tada said. "Circulation, muscles, tendons - it's good for everything."

Tada said an announcement on who will ride Casino Drive would most likely be made Monday. The leading candidates are Edgar Prado and Japanese jockey Yutaka Take.

- additional reporting by David Grening