04/28/2008 11:00PM

Talk isn't cheap - if you can back it up

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NEW YORK - Kentuckians have similar taste in their Derby favorites and their mint juleps: heavy on the syrup and almost unbearably sweet.

They would prefer that the likeliest winner of the Derby to be owned and bred by a seventh-generation Bluegrasser, and trained by a humble and clean-cut fellow who calls his elders "Sir" and never voices a stronger endorsement of his horse than "might be a nice one." In the absence of those ideal connections, they will settle for an allegedly heartwarming story about the indomitable spirit of blue-collar underdogs, especially if there is a sick relative involved.

By those standards, it's almost hard to believe that Big Brown will actually be the favorite in Saturday's 128th Kentucky Derby, given his spectacular lack of cuddly credentials.

His owners are not family farmers but International Equine Acquisitions Holdings, Inc., a corporation founded in 2003 by two hotshot New York investment bankers, Michael Iavarone and Richard Schiavo. It's no accident that IEAH looks more like a stock-ticker symbol than a traditional nom de course: Their plan, especially if Big Brown wins the Derby, is to take International Equine public and manage it like a hedge fund, raising $100 million for future purchases like the $3 million they paid for Big Brown after he won his debut at Saratoga last August.

"The primary goal of IEAH Stables is to parlay its success on the racetrack into a full-service breeding operation," according to the company's website. "Management has done significant due diligence and perceives the breeding end of the business to be immensely profitable."

Their trainer, Rick Dutrow, is the antithesis of humility when it comes to his colt and most other topics. Not since Bud Delp infuriated the locals almost 30 years ago by pronouncing Spectacular Bid the greatest horse who ever looked through a bridle has a Derby trainer been as blunt about the race.

"It's a horse race, and I have the best horse in the race," Dutrow said after the colt's final major Derby work in Florida Thursday morning. "It's that simple. . . . I don't see how he can get beat."

Dutrow added that he planned to make a big bet on his horse, as he reportedly did when he wagered $160,000 to win on Saint Liam in the 2005 Breeders' Cup Classic at $6.80, picking up $384,000 in profit on top of his $243,360 trainer's share of the winning purse.

Those remarks have already set some Kentucky commentators into a tizzy, calling the Big Brown camp cocky and arrogant. They're not going to be any happier with his lack of reverence for the Derby when they read his quote in David Grening's profile in Sunday's Racing Form, where the trainer says, "I'm training this horse for a horse race. I don't care what the name of it is."

There's an undercurrent to the criticism that suggests Dutrow is a loudmouthed claiming trainer from New York who will meet his comeuppance under the protective gaze of the Derby deities. Dutrow's swagger and the volume of his operation - he has started 623 different horses and won 791 races from 3,123 starts in the last five years - may make him seem better suited to the second race at Aqueduct than the Derby. Such a view, however, ignores Dutrow's proven success at the highest levels of the game.

Dutrow trained Saint Liam to the 2005 Horse of the Year title with similar confidence, announcing his schedule well in advance and daring all comers. Just last month, he won two seven-digit races on the Dubai World Cup card, the Godolphin Mile with Diamond Stripes and the Golden Shaheen with Benny the Bull. Yet Dutrow stayed Stateside that day to saddle Big Brown to his Florida Derby romp

There's also the possibility that he's simply right about Big Brown and his competition. The colt's Florida Derby was unquestionably the fastest and most dominant performance in a Derby prep in a season most notable for slow performances, close finishes, and form reversals.

Big Brown is in the same situation as Curlin was last year: trying to make history by winning the race in just his fourth career start. It was too much of a challenge even for Curlin, who finished a distant third, then took the Preakness in his next start and had proved himself the best horse in the world by year's end after winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic.

So even if Dutrow is right and Big Brown is the best horse in the field, he's no cinch on Saturday. Still, the best horse sometimes wins, even if his connections ruffle a few feathers by saying so beforehand. After all, it's not as if Buddy Delp was more than an inch off the mark with what he said about Spectacular Bid.