If Big Brown successfully negotiates the two turns at Belmont Park on Saturday, pulls ahead of the rushing pack, and becomes horse racing's first Triple Crown winner in three decades, salute him briefly - and then forget him.
Just before the Preakness, which Big Brown won against a fairly ordinary field, his owners announced a $50 million breeding contract with Three Chimneys Farm that assured the horse would never see a racing season as a 4-year-old.
When that promise takes effect was not spelled out. If Big Brown doesn't win the Belmont - becoming the 11th straight winner of the first two legs of the Triple Crown to trip over the third - then it is more likely he would hang around for the Breeders' Cup, hoping to burnish his record for prospective breeding partners. In the Breeders' Cup Classic, matched up against Curlin, the 2007 Horse of the Year, we might get a better idea of Big Brown's true place in the history of the game.
But if the horse wins the Belmont, becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner, he'll probably be packed in foam peanuts and shipped to Kentucky immediately. Further racing could only diminish his value, not increase it. That Big Brown will have won the Triple Crown against suspect competition isn't his fault. That he has come along at a time in which the best horses are raced to be bred, instead of the reverse, is also not his fault. He might be one for the ages, but in all probability, we'll never know. That is the shame of it.
The Belmont is enlivened somewhat by the presence of a horse named Casino Drive, which has all of two career starts. But the most recent was an impressive win in a Grade II stakes. This passes for a good resume these days.
Affirmed had to deal with Alydar each time, and Secretariat had to come out of the gate against Sham, a very credible horse that had already beaten him once. Seattle Slew beat good closers and good speed horses, won the Triple Crown and then raced again three weeks later. He raced as a 4-year-old, too, proving his endurance to potential breeding investors and went on to sire a Kentucky Derby winner (Swale) and a Belmont Stakes winner (A.P. Indy) that turned into an even better sire.
That doesn't happen any longer, so if you like Big Brown, if you thrill at the way he can accelerate at the top of the stretch - and it is damn impressive - take a good look Saturday. It might well be the last you will have.
After that, if he becomes a Triple Crown winner, it will be left for others, not the horse himself, to decide his legacy. His win in the Kentucky Derby was eye-opening: Breaking from the 20th post position, he went wide the entire trip and still dusted the field. In the Preakness, there wasn't much to run against him. The second choice in the betting field, Gayego, had finished more than 30 lengths behind in the Derby, if that is any gauge. Still, Big Brown won with a rush around the final turn and then a shift into coasting gear.
What would Big Brown have to do in the Belmont, if it is indeed his final race, to put his name high on the wall? He could win by 31 lengths like Secretariat. But what would that mean? Sham ran neck-and-neck the first six furlongs with Secretariat, a touch under 1 minute, 10 seconds. Ridiculous numbers for that race. Unfortunately for Sham, the race was only half over at that point. When Secretariat came under the wire in 2 minutes, 24 seconds, setting a world record for 11/2 miles that still stands, Sham was galumphing in toward a last-place finish. That's the wall the current horse has to climb.
Big Brown is cramped by his unworthy opponents, hurried by his choice of generation, and more likely to be underrated when the breed's history is written. The shame in this isn't that Big Brown was great but that he won't be allowed to demonstrate how great, that he might never again go to the track for the single thing he was born to do. Instead, he'll become a reproduction machine, locked inside white-rail fences, gone from us all.
You want to know what's wrong with horse racing? That's it. You get attached to these stars, you learn their stories, you love how they compete, and, then it is over.
So, gather around the television Saturday. It has been 30 years since any gathering witnessed a Triple Crown winner. Take a look at the enormous bay horse that fires at the top of the stretch and bolts into history.
But don't blink.