05/14/2008 11:00PM

Possible to turn 'Brown' into green

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NEW YORK - Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby with such authority, and against what looked like a better field than he will meet in Baltimore Saturday, that I'm not going to spend any time or effort trying to beat him in the 133rd Preakness.

I am also not going to spend any money betting on him to win at his likely odds of 1-2 or 2-5, a $2.80 or $3 gross return on a $2 bet. While a 40 or 50 percent profit in two minutes may sound attractive compared with current interest rates, things do go wrong in horse races. Five of the last six odds-on Preakness favorites have lost: Linkage was second at 1-2 in 1982, Swale was seventh at 4-5 in 1984, Easy Goer was second at 3-5 in 1989, Fusaichi Pegasus was second at 3-10 in 2003, and Barbaro was pulled up as the 1-2 favorite in 2006. Since Seattle Slew (2-5), Affirmed (1-2), and Spectacular Bid (1-10) posted consecutive odds-on victories from 1977-79, only Smarty Jones in 2004 has succeeded at less than even money.

Still, there are no compelling reasons to oppose Big Brown unless you're just the opposing type. He utterly dominated the Derby field despite racing wide on both turns and making only his fourth career start. He has room to improve in his fifth. The competition consists of the 17th-place Derby finisher and 11 new shooters who have combined to win two graded races among them. On paper it is simply a mismatch.

Fortunately, the modern horseplayer has options beyond whether to take 40 cents profit on the dollar or to stab at a longshot to score an unlikely victory. You can concede the race to Big Brown and still do a lot better than 2-5 if you attack it as a handicapping puzzle to come up with the second, third, and fourth finishers who will round out the exacta, trifecta, and superfecta. When Seattle Slew paid $2.80 in 1977, the exacta with 30-1 Iron Constitution paid $42.20. When Smarty Jones crushed his opposition by 11 1/2 lengths in 2004, the trifecta with 6-1 Rock Hard Ten and 13-1 Eddington came back $177.20, turning 7-10 into 87-1.

My key horse to run second or third behind Big Brown in the Preakness is Kentucky Bear, the only horse in the race even less experienced than the favorite. He has just three starts behind him in a racing career that began Jan. 21 with a 6 1/2-length victory going a mile at Gulfstream. It was the kind of debut that often marks a horse of high quality and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 93, higher than anyone in this field managed first time out.

Since then, he has been very ambitiously spotted. His second start came in the Fountain of Youth, where he was sent off at 4-1 but was unable to sustain a rally. Seven weeks later, he was a good third in the Blue Grass over a Polytrack surface that may not have showcased him at his best. Since then, he has been working sharply and arrived at Pimlico early to get acclimated. At 15-1 on the morning line, he's a reasonable bet to take a step forward returning to dirt and hit the board.

Gayego is the second-most accomplished horse in the field and owns the other two of its five combined triple-digit Beyer Figures that don't belong to Big Brown. He was off a bit slowly in the Derby, rank into the first turn, and basically done after failing to sniff the lead. He should get a much better trip Saturday, similar to the one he enjoyed en route to victory in the Arkansas Derby: He should be sitting second to the overmatched Tres Borrachos early, just like he was at Oaklawn. While there's no reason to believe he can withstand Big Brown, it would be no surprise if the only other Derby starter beat the rest of them.

Anyone can be fourth, but if pride or pocketbook preclude your hitting the "all" button on the bottom of your superfectas, I would try Behindatthebar, Hey Byrn, Macho Again, and Stevil before the others.

Don't take your eyes off the favorite, though. Big Brown's Kentucky Derby victory would have been one of the most dominant in the history of the race even if he hadn't been making only his fourth start. Whether or not he's worth a win bet at 2-5, this could be a colt for the ages.