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Jun 06, 2008

Big Brown - Seattle Slew or Spectacular Bid?

By: by Jeff Frank, Contributing Editor


Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Seattle Slew became the first and only undefeated Triple Crown winner when he won the 1977 Belmont Stakes. Spectacular Bid was well on his way to becoming the 12th horse in history to bring home the Derby, Preakness and Belmont two years later, but the son of Bold Bidder failed to win the "Test of Champions."

There have been 11 Triple Crown winners, and 18 that have failed after winning the first two legs. What category will Big Brown find himself in after crossing the wire on Saturday? Will he join the list of such revered equine stars as Count Fleet, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, or will he be part of the other list of those that tried and failed such as Majestic Prince, Spectacular Bid and Smarty Jones?

There is no doubt that Big Brown is a super horse, but then again, so were Majestic Prince and Spectacular Bid. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between the three colts.

Like Big Brown, Majestic Prince was undefeated heading into the Belmont Stakes, but wasn't even going to be entered in the Belmont after suffering an injured tendon while winning the Preakness. The year was 1969 and Secretariat had yet to be born. The most recent Triple Crown winner had beens Citation all the way back in 1948, so there certainly was a public buzz surrounding the undefeated three-year-old.

Public pressure finally got the best of his owner, and despite trepidations from trainer Johnny Longden, the "Prince" was entered in the Belmont. Regrettably, the son of Raise a Native failed in his bid for immortality, losing by over five lengths to Arts and Letters.

Ten years later, there was another superstar-in-the-making ready to become the fourth Triple Crown winner of the 1970s, and third in three consecutive years. Spectacular Bid came into the Belmont off a 12-race win streak, with an average winning margin of six lengths. Not only that, he had gone off as the 1-10 favorite or lower in seven of his previous eight races.

His trainer, Buddy Delp, owned a mouth similar to Rick Dutrow, and would spout off at any time to anyone within earshot about how good his horse was. Unfortunately for Delp, Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin the morning of the Belmont Stakes and lost to Coastal, who incidentally, is a son of Majestic Prince.

Meanwhile, Big Brown has dealt with quarter cracks in his hooves throughout his career, most recently over Memorial Day Weekend, and in this case will be patched up a day or two before the big race.

Is this a case of history repeating itself.

IS THERE ANOTHER "COASTAL" IN THIS FIELD?

Coastal had won the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park prior to taking the Belmont. Coincidentally, Casino Drive, Big Brown's fiercest rival, also jogged to victory in the Peter Pan in his last start.

The half-brother to the last two Belmont Stakes winners - Jazil and Rags to Riches - Casino Drive has raced only two times, with the first coming in Japan back in February. His connections have pointed him to this race all winter and spring, and if he runs back to his last effort, he will certainly challenge the reigning king of thoroughbred racing.

The only concern might be how he handles the enormous crowd for the 140th running of the Belmont. Casino Drive was not too keen being in the paddock at "Big Sandy" on May 10th, and if a minimal crowd got him uptight that day, one can only imagine what might happen in the presence of over 100,000 people this Saturday.

The only other horse that has a remote chance of crossing the wire first is Denis of Cork. The third-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby has been well rested since the first Saturday in May, and his powerful closing kick might come in handy if the two favorites hook up earlier than expected.

The son of Harlan's Holiday was dead last at Churchill Downs after the first half-mile was run in a slow 47 seconds. He was never going to catch up to Big Brown, but he did run his final six furlongs a tick faster than the winner. Bear in mind, Denis of Cork benefited from a rail saving trip that day, while the Derby-Preakness champ was five wide almost the entire race.

It would be a shocker to see any of the other seven horses hit the wire first, but one of them has a small chance to upset the field at huge odds and his name is Tale of Ekati. The Wood Memorial winner owns a pair of victories at Belmont Park and could be dangerous on or near the lead, as the bulk of the field will be coming from well behind the pacesetters.

Speaking of the rest of the field, Macho Again and Icabad Crane were soundly defeated by Big Brown in the Preakness, and clearly are a cut below the big boys. The same can be said for Nick Zito's duo of Anak Nakal and Da' Tara. The former has yet to post a Beyer number above 90, while the latter has no business being in the race at all with just one victory in seven lifetime starts.

Ready's Echo, trained by Todd Pletcher, who won this race last year with Rags to Riches, comes into the Belmont off a well-beaten third behind Casino Drive in the Peter Pan. The stone closer was way behind early, but rallied late to get up for third, beaten 6 1/4 lengths. It will be extremely difficult for him to improve off that effort considering he failed to run his final three furlongs faster than the winner, even after trailing by some 17 lengths early on.

The final entry was a late one, coming early Wednesday morning. Guadalcanal has yet to win a race and even though he raced the 12 panels in his last start, he seems up against it vs. this bunch.

HOW BIG BROWN CAN BE DEFEATED

As mentioned, the quarter crack is an issue. Not a huge one, but I'm sure Rick Dutrow would have preferred a more uneventful past couple of weeks. Horses have won races wearing a patch, including Touch Gold, who denied Silver Charm the Triple Crown in 1997. However, three races in five weeks might prove a bit too daunting, especially with the interruption in his training due to the crack.

Another cause for concern comes from Big Brown's latest workout. Five furlongs in 1:00 flat is pretty much what Dutrow wanted, but galloping out the next furlong in over 14 seconds is not in line with Big Brown's past works the previous few weeks.

The other factor is the unknown ability of Casino Drive. In the Kentucky Derby, Big Brown had virtually one decent challenger to worry about in Colonel John, and the second choice failed to run his race after getting knocked around at the start. At the Preakness, there was little in the way of quality behind the Derby champ and it showed as Big Brown toyed with the competition.

Casino Drive, despite only two career efforts, will be his greatest challenge to date, one that Kent Desormeaux is not taking lightly, even after a couple of extremely slow workouts. Bear in mind, Big Brown's jockey is well aware of how the Japanese trainers prepare their horses, especially Kazuo Fujisawa, since Desormeaux rode for him while spending time in Japan earlier this decade. In addition, the jockey was aboard the undefeated colt in his lone race in this country and knows he will be a force to be reckoned with when the real running begins around the far turn.

On the other hand, if Casino Drive bounces off his last effort, there is a good chance Big Brown wins by 15-20 lengths, especially if his connections are certain this will be his last race. And if that happens, there will be no denying his greatness, and his place in thoroughbred history will be forever etched in stone.

HOW THE RACE WILL BE RUN

Big Brown has shown himself to be a very versatile colt, winning from the lead in the Florida Derby and just off the front-runners in the Derby and Preakness. Breaking from post one means he will have to show some speed out of the gate in order not to be trapped on the rail by the rest of the front- runners.

Thankfully for Big Brown, this race is not filled with much high-powered early speed. Da' Tara and Tale of Ekati should be near the front, as well as Casino Drive, if all get a decent break from the starting gate. Look for Big Brown to be sitting fourth a few lengths off what will be a very slow pace.

A large proportion of the horses entered in this race come from the back of the pack, and that's where the likes of Denis of Cork, Ready's Echo, Icabad Crane and Macho Again will find themselves as the 10 three-year-olds move down the backstretch.

As the field approaches the far turn, Tale of Ekati will be in front, followed by Big Brown and Casino Drive, with a gap of 7-10 lengths to the rest of them. Look for the two favorites (Big Brown and Casino Drive) to pounce on the lead at the top of the stretch and begin to draw off. The deep closers will start to close ground, but will have been too far back early to come anywhere close to the two undefeated stars.

Through the stretch, it will be a dazzling show between them, with neither giving an inch. Unlike in years past when Victory Gallop and Birdstone came from far back to pass Real Quiet and Smarty Jones, respectively, the 2008 version of the Belmont Stakes will be a classic match race, a la Affirmed and Alydar 30 years ago.

Affirmed was the last Triple Crown winner and he'll remain in that spot as Casino Drive spoils yet another horse's glorious chance for stardom. Big Brown will be gallant in defeat, with Denis of Cork, far back in third.

The Triple Crown will have to wait one more year, but at least Big Brown has a decent chance to race again, maybe in a rematch with Casino Drive, and possibly Colonel John in the Travers. This scenario might not please the general public so desperate for a champion, but from a pure racing standpoint, it sounds a million times more enticing than never seeing Big Brown on a racetrack again.



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