BALTIMORE - It was like Kent Desormeaux was driving a car and the rest of the jockeys were, well, riding horses. It has been like that every time Big Brown has raced. If Desormeaux puts it on cruise control, the colt idles. If he brakes, the colt slows. And if he hits the accelerator, like he did for perhaps 175 yards in Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico, the response is instantaneous and a bit awe inspiring.
Horses are not machines. At least, they are not supposed to be. The late track announcer Chic Anderson described Secretariat as "this tremendous machine" as the legendary colt opened up a 20-length lead turning for home in the 1973 Belmont Stakes on the way to the first Triple Crown in 25 years. Nobody argued with Anderson's description. At this moment, after five races and five wins by a combined 39 lengths, 7.8 lengths per race, machine seems like the only appropriate description for Big Brown, a Belmont Stakes victory away from being the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years.
Big Brown did not beat the average in the Preakness, but that really wasn't the point. When the field reached the far turn, two horses were just in front and to the inside of Big Brown. Desormeaux looked under his right arm to see if anything was moving behind him. That was the signal the rider knew the horses in front of him were no threat.
At the instant Big Brown's body was straight in the stretch, the rider moved his hands forward and gave the signal. In maybe 10 strides, Big Brown went from even to 5 lengths in front. You can watch thousands of horse races and never see a horse separate so fast and so far in such little time.
"I kissed at him," Desormeaux said. "I tapped him on the shoulder. He just took off. He's got some turn of foot."
It is about 350 yards from the top of the Pimlico stretch to the finish line. The rider let off the accelerator more than 100 yards from the finish line. The second, third and fourth horses, straining on every stride, were separated by barely more than 1 length. The second horse, Macho Again, owned by Terry Finley's West Point Thoroughbreds, based in Mt. Laurel, ran the race of his life. And was separated from Big Brown by 5 1/4 lengths.
The big colt has raced against 54 horses in five races and beaten them all soundly, 39 lengths of air between them. In his last three races, all Grade I stakes, he won from the 12 post in the Florida Derby, which was supposed to be impossible; the 20 post in the Kentucky Derby, which was equally impossible; and now the Preakness with complete ease, proving that, with Big Brown, impossible may not apply.
"I'm thankful that I've been blessed with these beautiful people and freak of a horse," Desormeaux said. "It was just the easiest win ever."
So on to Belmont Park, where Big Brown will train for the June 7 Belmont Stakes. The colts that finished third and fourth in the Derby, Denis of Cork and Tale of Ekati, will be there after passing up the Preakness. Casino Drive, the Japanese owned and trained colt so impressive in winning the May 10 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont, will be there. Big Brown will most definitely be there.
The colt's trainer, Rick Dutrow, so confident in Kentucky and, by post time, equally confident at Pimlico, did not sound concerned by any horse or any scenario.
When asked about the Belmont exacta, Desormeaux, who rode Casino Drive in the Peter Pan, said it was a cold exacta.
Cold or boxed?
"I don't know," Desormeaux said.
Dutrow did not equivocate.
"It's cold, babe," he said before starting to laugh.
Back at the stakes barn, Dutrow just kept laughing. And why not? He trains a machine in a sport where even the very best horses rarely hold their form for long. To this point, Big Brown seems to be the exception to all the horse racing rules.
"I was not surprised that he won so easy because I know we have a good horse, and I know he was running a race where they didn't have good horses running," said Dutrow, who was not lying on either count.
"Well, I would like to have him, number one," Dutrow said. "He looks like a nice horse. Number two, I believe that he can't beat our horse. So all Japanese people are going to think when they come here that they thought Godzilla was dead. They're going to find out he's not dead, he's here."
Politically incorrect all the way to end, Dutrow offended a state when he basically said the Derby looked like just any other race to him. Now he's after a country. With Big Brown in the barn, it sort of releases your inhibitions, not that Dutrow has ever had any.
Since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978, 10 horses have gone to Belmont Park with a chance. Eleven horses have won the Triple Crown. Maybe the stars and the numbers are aligned this time.
We all know what we have seen this spring, but the sport makes you cautious. Certainly, Smarty Jones looked like a cinch 4 years ago. In this game, nothing is ever certain.
What we do know is that we should savor Big Brown. He will be gone to Three Chimneys Farm by the end of the year, joining Smarty and Dynaformer, Barbaro's sire. A stud deal, with an estimated value of $50 million, was announced an hour before the Preakness.
Big Brown ran the mile and three-sixteenths in 1:54.80, which equated to a Beyer speed figure of 100, several lengths slower than his Derby win.
The players at Pimlico bet $5.3 million to win on 1-5 Big Brown. So much was bet on him to win that he actually paid more to place ($2.60) than he did to win ($2.40).
The two horses in front of Big Brown to the top of the stretch, Riley Tucker and Gayego, finished last and next-to-last, respectively. This is not a coincidence. Big Brown does not just beat horses. The horses that dare hang near him early get run right to the back of the pack.
There was a very interesting race within the race. Earlier this year, Edgar Prado thought he had been promised the mount on Big Brown. Promises in horse racing are like promises in politics. Desormeaux got the mount.
So there was Prado riding Riley Tucker like the race was 6 furlongs, asking his colt early to rush out of the gate, pushing him ahead of Big Brown coming out of the first turn when it looked like Desormeaux was going to have clear sailing. That was Riley Tucker who came up outside Big Brown with Gayego just in front of the Derby winner.
For an instant, Big Brown was trapped. So Desormeaux tapped on the brakes, let Riley Tucker pass by and then swung Big Brown to the middle of the track for the long run down the backstretch. From there, it was a question of how, when, and by how many.
"Going down the backside when Kent got him out and he was laying third on the outside, I knew it was over," Dutrow said.
Casino Drive is going to need a new rider for the Belmont Stakes. Word is that it will most likely be an American-based jockey. The most likely candidate is a man with incentive - Edgar Prado.
Big Brown will be just the fourth horse to hit the Belmont Stakes without a loss. Only Seattle Slew (1977) made it through. Majestic Prince (1969) and Smarty finished second.
"It looks like Big Brown might win the Belmont farther than Secretariat," said Patrick Gallagher, trainer of 10th place finisher Yankee Bravo.
That would be 31 lengths. That is not likely. Just about anything else, however, is clearly possible. *