WHEN THOSE SIX horses went for the Triple Crown between 1997 and 2004, there was hardly a discouraging word. Just about everybody, in and out of the sport, wanted to see the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner get the Belmont Stakes.
That was never truer than in 2004 when Smarty Jones was going for the Triple Crown. The horse from Philadelphia Park, with the great human stories and the unbeaten record, had a following so big that a record 120,139 people showed up at Belmont Park.
It is different with Big Brown. It has nothing to do with the horse that has crushed every opponent in every race. It has everything to do with bragging trainer Rick Dutrow and the ownership group that is new to the sport and inflated the resume of one of its principal partners, perhaps to attract naïve investors. Not everybody is on board with Big Brown. In fact, there are some inside the sport who are openly rooting against the horse.
And you know how much all of that will mean tomorrow - nothing.
Big Brown is going to win or lose on his merits. What people want will not matter. If wishes mattered, Smarty Jones would have won by 10 lengths.
I was almost certain that Big Brown would win the Derby and totally certain he would win the Preakness. I do not have either of those feelings about this race.
Of course, Big Brown is the likely winner. No horse wins all those races by such large margins without great talent. The colt should be an overwhelming favorite.
But there are issues, some more serious than others. Big Brown is the only horse to run in all three Triple Crown races. When you watch how easily the horse wins, you might make an assumption that it has been easy. But it is never that easy. Each race takes something out of a horse.
Big Brown appears to have lost a little bit of weight through the series. The colt veered out sharply to the right after the finish line of the Preakness, a bit like he did after his final workout 2 days before the Derby. He came back from the Preakness with some blood trickling from his rear ankles as they were scraped up during the race.
"This horse looks better now than he did going into the Derby," said Dutrow, who continues to insist the colt can't lose.
And, 2 weeks ago, that quarter crack was discovered in the left front hoof. Big Brown missed 3 days of training. The Rembrandt of hooves, Ian McKinlay, was brought in to oversee the repairs. It is delicate business. It might be fine by race time. It could also sting the horse during the race. It is not the kind of thing that can lead to more serious injury, but it could impact the horse's ability to run at his best.
Big Brown's final workout on Tuesday was not as impressive as his final work before the Derby.
There are also race tactics to consider. This race is just about devoid of early pace. Da' Tara could be cheap, no hope, early speed. But the two fastest horses are also the two best - Big Brown and Casino Drive.
If I were instructing Kent Desormeaux, I would tell him to put Big Brown on the lead and gallop this field into oblivion. However, I do not think Desormeaux will do that.
The jockey understandably is going to ride Big Brown with total confidence. Who wouldn't? He is probably going to assume he can cruise to the quarter pole, push the button and roar away from the field.
What if Big Brown runs that mile and a quarter (the Derby distance) and does not have the same energy as he enters the stretch for the final 440 yards of the Belmont?
What if Casino Drive is right there with Big Brown at the quarter pole and does not check out like all those underwhelming Big Brown opponents have done?
Add all of it up and it's hard to take 2-5.
Look, there is every chance Big Brown will blow this field away, like he has all the others. The colt has that beautiful, repeatable stride, almost perfect running mechanics. This time, however, there are more questions than answers.
So I am picking Casino Drive. Not only was his Peter Pan Stakes win visually impressive, the colt ran faster, by the numbers, than Big Brown did in the Preakness. I found a replay of the colt's first race in Japan. Casino Drive showed great early speed and crushed the field. Interestingly, in a 13-horse field in a country where they bet huge amounts of money on every race, Casino Drive was 1-5.
Obviously, Casino Drive is a bit of a leap of faith as the colt is trying to do what Big Brown has already done over and over - win big races.
As soon as Casino Drive's half-sister Rags to Riches won the 2007 Belmont, the owners mapped out a plan to get Casino Drive to the Belmont.
Unlike his American counterparts, Casino Drive will race without medication in the Belmont. Every country except the United States and Canada does not allow legal medication on race day.
Casino Drive has raced just twice because he cut his knees last year when ready to run. The colt had to be quarantined for 60 days before leaving Japan, arrived in America on April 30 after a 15-hour, 7,000-mile journey, had one 5-furlong workout on May 7 and won the May 10 Peter Pan by nearly 6 lengths.
Desormeaux knows all about Casino Drive. He rode the colt in the Peter Pan.
"He's the only one that can even entertain Big Brown's stride," Desormeaux said.
The race within the race will be fascinating. Edgar Prado, who thought he had the mount on Big Brown this winter, picked up the mount on Casino Drive. You know the riders will be watching each other.
"If there is no pace, he can go," said Nobutaka Tada, racing manager for Casino Drive's owner Hidetoshi Yamamoto. "If there is pace, he can settle. He is suitable to any pace."
Finally, there is the 1998 Belmont Stakes. Going for the Triple Crown, Desormeaux opened up a big lead on Real Quiet in the stretch and then was caught at the wire. He was criticized for moving too soon. I did not and do not subscribe to the criticism. If Real Quiet had won by a nose, the rider would have been hailed as a genius.
Whatever we think, you can be sure Desormeaux will be thinking about it, too.
"I can tell you after Real Quiet, Kent's not going to move too soon," said Smarty Jones' trainer John Servis. "He'll be sitting as long as he can."
Which might not be the right way to win this Belmont. It might be better to use Big Brown's speed earlier and run the others out of the race.
The race could be a coronation, another blowout for Big Brown. Or it could turn into a horse race where more than one outcome is possible. Winning the Triple Crown is never supposed to be as easy as Big Brown has made it look so far. It may be about to get harder, much harder. *