NEW YORK - There was a little extra buzz one morning last week around Belmont Park when Casino Drive, also known as
The horse that could beat Big Brown
, went to the track for a breeze.
In American thoroughbred racing, a breeze means a horse shows off a little speed, moving faster than its regular morning gallop. But Casino Drive, while bred in Kentucky, is trained in Japan. His work last Wednesday confused the clockers at Belmont Park, who timed him in just over a minute and 12 seconds for five furlongs - 12 seconds slower than Big Brown breezed over the same distance yesterday morning.
"I don't have a good fix on that horse, but I know that the horse is not at the top of his game. There's no way," Big Brown's trainer, Rick Dutrow, said yesterday at a news luncheon in Manhattan, promoting his horse's attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years at Saturday's Belmont Stakes. "I've seen this horse. My friends around the stables have seen this horse. There's just no way this horse can beat Big Brown in a horse race. That's impossible."
Dutrow had made similar remarks last week, causing Nobutaka Tada, the racing manager for the owner of Casino Drive, to respond, "It sounds like he knows my horse more than us."
Ordinarily, a horse such as Casino Drive racing for just the third time in his life already would have been written off trying to get the mile and a half required of the Belmont, but not this year, not when Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby in his fourth start. Casino Drive is here expressly because of his exquisite genes. His half-sister, Rags to Riches, won last year's Belmont Stakes. His half-brother, Jazil, won the Belmont the year before. If Casino Drive, expected to be the second betting choice, were to knock off Big Brown, his dam, Better Than Honour, would pull off an unprecedented feat, producing three straight Belmont winners.
Because of that history, Casino Drive was aimed for this race before he ever left a starting gate. In February, he raced for the first time in Japan, winning a 11/8-mile race by 111/2 lengths. He missed a chance for another race in Japan because he had to be moved to several training centers and racetracks to avoid an outbreak of equine influenza that had hit Japan.
Purchased for $950,000 by a Japanese businessman, Hidetoshi Yamamoto, the son of 2003 horse of the year Mineshaft came to the United States last month. A week after Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby, Casino Drive won the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park by 53/4 lengths. As it happened, Kent Desormeaux, the rider of Big Brown, rode Casino Drive in the Peter Pan, and Desormeaux immediately announced that Casino Drive would be Big Brown's competition in the Belmont.
"I can't wait to see the end result," Desormeaux said yesterday, aware that two-time Belmont winner Edgar Prado, the jockey on Birdstone when he upset Smarty Jones, will be on Casino Drive this time. "I know we're going to be together turning for home. . . . They both have beautiful long fluid strides. I think the difference is going to be the power that [Big Brown] has when I turn him on. He doesn't have to quicken his legs. He just starts adding power to his stride."
The last six Belmont favorites who left the gate at odds of less than even money all lost, so there is reason not to assume Saturday's race is a coronation. One highly regarded speed figure, the Ragozin Sheets, had Casino Drive's Peter Pan a touch more impressive than Big Brown's Preakness, so the horse clearly has a chance. The big question is whether Casino Drive will improve or regress, and nobody can answer that.
If the breeze seemed like a strong clue, it shouldn't. Casino Drive had breezed the same distance 13 seconds faster before the Peter Pan, but his trainer felt as if he needed some speed work at that time. For the Belmont, Casino Drive walks for an hour around the barns before going to the track, then walks for another hour afterward.
"That horse is going to have some foundation on him," said Desormeaux, who rode in Japan for five years, often for Casino Drive's trainer, Kazou Fujisawa. "He's got plenty of foundation. I've been there. I know how they train. They train up hills and they train for hours a day. He's got the miles on him."
As for that slow breeze, Desormeaux said of Fujisawa: "He's only been leading trainer in Japan for the past 17 years. I rode the morning workouts for him three months for five years. It works. That's how they work, all of them."
So he's genuinely worried about Casino Drive?
"Absolutely - yes, I am," Desormeaux said.
Does he think Dutrow, for all his bravado, is secretly worried about him, too?
"No," Desormeaux said immediately.