For Big Brown, today's Belmont Stakes can't simply be measured as a grueling 1½-mile test of speed, strength and stamina.
Instead, it's the imposing distance to reach racing immortality.
With a win, Big Brown will become the 12th Triple Crown champion since 1919 and the first since Affirmed in 1978. A loss and he's relegated to the teeming ranks of near-misses, and there have been 10 in the past three decades.
"He has been very, very exciting to watch," said Patrice Wolfson, who along with her late husband, Louis, owned Affirmed, "and I think that racing needed, particularly this year, a horse like him."
The sport has been rocked ever since Eight Belles was euthanized on the Churchill Downs track after finishing second to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby five weeks ago. That tragedy, coming just a couple of years after undefeated Barbaro broke down in the Preakness and was subsequently euthanized, has prompted renewed calls for reforms in terms of breeding sturdier horses and training them without steroids and race-day medications.
"We need that feel-good moment," said Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat, who won the 1973 Triple Crown and stamped himself as the measuring stick for greatness. "I truly hope it happens."
But can Big Brown deliver the goods?
Yes, he's undefeated in five starts and has won each easily. Yes, trainer Rick Dutrow comes off sounding Ali-esque — without the clever rhyme, that is — in saying:
"These horses cannot run with Big Brown."
Still, his colt missed a few days of training late last month after developing a cracked left front hoof — a crack that was held together with steel until it was patched Friday. Will that be a factor? It certainly isn't the perfect lead-in to the Belmont.
And he has to contend with predominantly fresher horses, such as the late-running Denis of Cork, who was third in the Derby in his last race and has a new rider, Robby Albarado, a veteran at Belmont; Wood Memorial winner Tale of Ekati, a disappointing fourth in the Derby who has trained well since and is 2-for-2 at Belmont Park; and the improving Icabad Crane, third in the Preakness and a winner on a muddy track in his debut last year (and it could rain in New York today).
But perhaps an even bigger obstacle looms in Casino Drive, if a bruised hoof that kept him from working out Friday morning and needing ice and heat doesn't keep him out of the race.
The promising, impeccably bred import from Japan won his February debut in Japan by 11½ lengths then took the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes on May 10 at Belmont Park by an eye-popping 5¾ lengths.
"Well, he hasn't had so much experience, but he showed us a brave act," said Nobutaka Tada, the racing manager for Casino Drive owner Hidetoshi Yamamoto, of the horse's most recent effort. "He took everything very well after the second race, so we don't worry about experience."
"He's obviously a talented horse," said Steve Cauthen, who so masterfully rode Affirmed in three scintillating duels with Alydar. "Whether he's ready to beat Big Brown is another question."
Although Dutrow said "there's no way in the world Casino Drive can beat Big Brown" and he's going to be "schooled" like every other opponent, his colt needs an Alydar-like foil to be favorably compared to the other members of racing's most exclusive club. Especially since Big Brown might race only one or two more times after today.
This is why Casino Drive, assuming he's okay, might provide that kind of challenge:
• He not only has a race over the Belmont Park oval, but he has won a big race there. Five horses have parlayed a win in the Peter Pan into a Belmont Stakes win. That includes Coastal in 1979, who ended Spectacular Bid's Triple Crown hopes, and Lemon Drop Kid in 1999, who stopped Charismatic's bid.
• Casino Drive, a nearly $1-million Keeneland yearling sale buy in 2006, is half-brother to the last two Belmont Stakes winners, Jazil and Rags to Riches. The bloodlines suggest distance won't be an issue for him.
• And the horse will have Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado aboard. (Kent Desormeaux rode him in the Peter Pan, but he'll be a bit busy on Big Brown.) Prado, incidentally, has been a Triple Crown spoiler with his two Belmont wins: He rode 70-1 shot Sarava to deny War Emblem in 2002; and he was on Birdstone, sent off at 36-1, who rallied to nip the previously unbeaten Smarty Jones in 2004.
"The Belmont should be, hopefully, a very, very exciting race if this Casino Drive can do what they say they think he can do," Wolfson said. "The matchup may be fabulous for racing."
Brian Landman can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3347.