06/01/2008 11:00PM

Something still to prove


En route to all the pomp and circumstance the sport and its beleaguered faithful can confer upon him, the best horse that Kent Desormeaux ever has ridden has come running home alone in his four 3-year-old triumphs. As a mundane matter of fact, the colt’s final fractions have looked like so:

Gulfstream allowance (one mile)25.80

Florida Derby (1 1/8 miles)38.00

Kentucky Derby (1 1/4 miles)25.40

Preakness (1 3/16 miles)44.60

No matter the uproar from the Big Brown corners, these are not the marks of the champion. The Florida Derby looked to be special as the race unfolded. In its aftermath, alas, the final three furlongs left something to be desired. No doubt about it, the 38 flat registers as truly slow.

The Kentucky Derby looked impressive, too, except the final fraction proved ordinary, and Big Brown’s interior fraction from the six-furlong call to the mile, where the colt gained roughly four lengths, compounded the perception of a potential problem. Big Brown completed that critical fraction in 24.60 seconds, which means he delivered a final Derby half-mile in 50 seconds. That should send no one to the record books.

The corresponding Beyer Speed Figures of 106 and 109 reflected good but unexceptional performances, which were exactly what Big Brown had delivered. Next came the Preakness, and the margin of victory notwithstanding, the Beyer Speed Figure of 100 is not easily reconciled with claims to greatness. The oddly shaped final fraction that covers seven-sixteenths of a mile is suspiciously slow. A top horse might be expected to run the distance in 42.60 or a couple lengths slower perhaps, but not as slowly as 44.60.

Big Brown was geared down in the final furlong at Pimlico, the obvious counterpoint, but the larger point and persistent pattern of slow final fractions casts a gnawing pall over the colt’s accomplishments. How talented is this colt? Until he has been challenged in the late stages by a recognized peer or at least can finish the final furlongs in brilliant time, many handicappers might agree we just do not yet know.

To be sure, none of this is intended to discount the exploits of Big Brown unfairly. The colt cannot be held accountable for the level of his opposition, which on the available evidence must be considered more than slightly inferior. Not another colt had run faster than par in the diversity of graded stakes leading to this year’s Derby, a highly unusual and regrettable circumstance which trainer Richard Dutrow seemed to comprehend especially well.

In addition, handicappers will be aware of the relative unimportance of the final fractions on the main track, which typically will be a function of what has happened in the early stages. One-run closers in routes may finish fast, but they win less than 50 percent of their rightful share, and usually will be much better bets to finish second or third unless the pace should collapse.

In both his allowance comeback romp at Gulfstream Park and in the Florida Derby, Big Brown recorded exceptionally strong pace figures for 3-year-olds of winter and spring. Not to be overlooked, as a September 2-year-old across an exceptionally fast turf course at Saratoga (DRF track variant of 3), and at 14-1, no less, Big Brown set an ordinary pace of 23.00, 47.40 and 1:11.80 to a final time of 1:40.20 for 1 1/16 miles, which yields a stunning final fraction of 28.40; amazing for a juvenile debut.

The slow final fractions apart, Big Brown also has demonstrated a persuasive array of attributes associated with the expression of high class:

* Two moves, not just one

* Rapid acceleration, early and late

* Can be rated kindly, responsive to the rider’s handling

Still, the slow final fractions cannot be ignored and provide a cautionary note as the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes approaches. Until Big Brown has run fast in the final stages, notably when pressed by a worthy opponent, the colt will have something to prove. The claims to greatness will have to wait.

The telltale question of this Belmont is whether the twice-raced Japanese star prospect Casino Drive is indeed the classic colt his handlers have imagined him to be. He is surely a curious specimen. Does the 7,000-mile shipper possess high class? It’s a question that will be answered only on the track and in the late stages. If Casino Drive does possess high class, he can very well defeat Big Brown. Among handicappers willing to assume Casino Drive represents a legitimate threat, Big Brown is no odds-on favorite in this terrifically taxing marathon. If Big Brown will be backed to 2-5 or thereabouts, the bets belong instead on Casino Drive, notably to crush the exotics.

Even if Big Brown is best, the sport is filled with instances where lightly raced undefeated colts and fillies that have won off by wide margins in the late stages tend to lose when first they are challenged seriously throughout the stretch. Unaccustomed to the late and prolonged challenge, the best horse is not prepared to respond as required, and disappoints. The next time the needed response might be anticipated and delivered, but Big Brown will be vulnerable to that kind of sustained challenge if it occurs on Saturday.

And if Big Brown wins going away, the claims to greatness must await another day regardless. The crucible among the leading 3-year-olds is rarely the ability to defeat their own kind. It’s instead the ability to defeat the leading 4 and up handicap horses. That is particularly the situation where a 3-year-old colt stands out among his age group. First let the Triple Crown hero defeat the 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin in the Breeders’ Cup Classic before we assign him to the ages.

Only two seasons ago the brilliant 3-year-old Bernadini was insinuated to be one of the ones based upon his 3-year-old dope. Then Bernadini lined up in the BC Classic against handicap leader Invasor. The bettors apparently had been duped again. They sent Bernadini away at 6-5. When he should have been no greater than 5-2 that day, Invasor was let go at an outrageous 6.70-1. Invasor drubbed his younger challenger comfortably. The outcome was never a close call. Handicappers might have reminded themselves of the old saw that suggests the leading 3-year-olds must be truly supreme to defeat the leading handicap horses in the definitive stakes of fall. That traditional guideline has surrendered some of its force in the modern game, but it should not be forgotten.

Big Brown is not yet truly supreme, accompanied as he has so far been with final fractions that have been slow and slower.