ELMONT, N.Y. - A phalanx of security guards kept yelling,
"Please step back!"
as Big Brown made his way to the track yesterday morning for a final gallop before his run for immortality.
As his Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner came off the track, trainer Rick Dutrow added his own voice, telling photographers: "Can we stop that? Those clicks are going to scare him."
Was Dutrow feeling the pressure as undefeated Big Brown aims to become the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years in today's 140th Belmont Stakes? It was more as if Dutrow understood that this was the last chance for anything to go wrong. There was some rush-hour traffic on the track, with plenty of flighty horses out there. Dutrow wanted Big Brown away from it.
"He hears the clicks, he wants to pose," Dutrow said later of getting Big Brown off the track. "I want him to go out there and train like a racehorse."
With Big Brown safely back in his barn, Dutrow grew noticeably more at ease, explaining how he sees his horse winning - "by daylight, easily. I don't see a dogfight in this race."
The horse-racing industry understands that a Triple Crown wouldn't be some magic elixir, suddenly causing thousands to flock to racetracks across the country with fistfuls of dollars to bet on local ponies.
But thoroughbred horse racing does have history going for it, and that's what Big Brown is running for today, trying to join the likes of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, the only three horses to win the Triple Crown in the last 60 years. Only 11 have ever done it, starting with Sir Barton in 1919.
If another horse scores an upset today, Big Brown will be the 10th horse since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978 to take both the Derby and Preakness and come up short over the final mile-and-a-half leg.
Birdstone, trained by Nick Zito, pulled off the one-length upset of Philadelphia Park-based Smarty Jones in 2004. Right after that race, Zito apologized to Smarty Jones' trainer, John Servis, but Zito said he went to sleep happy that night.
"Did the Giants feel bad when they beat the Patriots?" asked Zito, who has two horses in this race, Anak Nakal, the seventh-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby, and Da' Tara, who will take the early lead ahead of Big Brown today, he said.
Casino Drive will be even more of an X factor today, if he's in the race at all. The second choice in the morning line, despite just two career starts, is questionable for the race - and very questionable now to get to the finish line first after he missed his morning gallop yesterday. A bruise was discovered on his left rear hoof.
Denis of Cork, the third-place finisher in the Derby, looks like the most competitive alternative to Big Brown, although the horse named for an Irish priest went around the rail at the Derby and still finished 81/4 lengths behind the winner, who had gone four wide all the way around.
It will be impossible to guess how many lengths Big Brown might have to spot Guadalcanal, who has never won and has never been in a race that included a horse who took part in any of this year's Triple Crown events. However, even that horse would be a wise-guy kind of pick to get up for third or fourth and fill out a superfecta.
"He's not running against a really tough crowd," Dutrow said yesterday of the crop of 3-year-olds, reiterating a theme he and many others have talked about this year: how Big Brown hasn't been challenged in winning all of his five races by at least 43/4 lengths, his margin in the Derby.
Off the track, the journey since the Derby has been adventurous. Dutrow's past has been thoroughly excavated. Michael Iavarone, who put together the ownership group that bought 75 percent of Big Brown after his first race, said Thursday morning that all of the horse's connections have "been exposed" because of the spotlight.
"All of us have grown up in these six weeks," Iavarone said.
Before the Kentucky Derby, Iavarone had advertised himself as a Wall Street investment banker. After Big Brown won the Derby, he declined to say where he had worked on Wall Street. After Big Brown won the Preakness, a reporter from Bloomberg.com reported that Iavarone's actual job had been selling penny stocks at four brokerage firms, one of which was shut down by regulators after the company pleaded guilty in 1997 to enterprise corruption, a felony. Iavarone had bought and sold more than $20,000 of stock without his clients' permission. He wasn't charged criminally, but he was fined $7,500 and suspended for 10 days in 1999.
"Maybe I didn't expect to be thrust into the spotlight in the way in which I have been," Iavarone said yesterday. "Maybe it would have made more sense for me to come out first and say here's what I used to do. I just wasn't sure at the time it was relevant. You look back now and you realize it was."
This week, Suffolk Downs in Boston announced it is offering a $5 million purse for the Massachusetts Handicap if Big Brown wins the Triple Crown and if both he and Curlin, last year's horse of the year and currently the world's top-ranked thoroughbred, go undefeated and start in the race against each other. The $5 million would include a $1 million participation bonus for each horse.
"The match race in Boston, it doesn't mean anything," Dutrow said yesterday. "The Travers means something. The Breeders' Cup means something. The other race would be just about money."
Big Brown already has a $50 million stud agreement with Three Chimneys Farm. Dutrow and the owners say Big Brown will keep running. It will be interesting to see if that holds true if he leaves the racetrack tonight as the only living Triple Crown winner.
Dutrow said he has loved the whole experience. He's got the favorite, Benny the Bull, in today's $250,000 True North Handicap, the sixth race. But Dutrow said he probably won't even go out and watch the race. He wants to hang around Big Brown.
"He's just the coolest horse that ever lived," Dutrow said.
Belmont Analysis and Wagers
First: Big Brown (1) - Ten consecutive winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness have failed in the grueling 11/2 miles of the Belmont Stakes. But this possibly great colt has handled various tracks and surfaces, responding with five wide-margin victories. The ease of his recent successes suggests the added distance could actually work in his favor. With the lack of another true speed horse in the field, he should also benefit from a kind-pace scenario. Many fans have been disturbed by trainer Rick Dutrow's cocky demeanor, but there is no doubting his tremendous ability to win. Billy Turner, who saddled Seattle Slew to capture the Triple Crown in 1977, called Dutrow a "natural-born horseman" on Thursday.
Second: Casino Drive (5) - He has begun his career in similar fashion to Big Brown, winning his first two outings by a combined 171/4 lengths, from Kyoto to New York. He is a half-brother to the last two Belmont Stakes winners, Rags to Riches and Jazil. It would be an incredible trifecta for his dam, Better Than Honour, should Casino Drive win. But while it appears that Big Brown might be hampered by a foot problem, it was this colt who failed to go to the track for training yesterday because of a bruise on his foot. He has the benefit of a race over the track, romping home in the Peter Pan, but there were no Big Brown clones in the field that day.
Third: Tale of Ekati (7) - After showing promise as a juvenile, this colt was dull after a layoff in the Louisiana Derby but returned to form, catching juvenile champ War Pass in the Wood Memorial. He was soundly beaten in the Kentucky Derby but is perfect over the Belmont surface, and trainer Barclay Tagg is a leading 13 for 34 at the current meeting.
Fourth: Macho Again (3) - Closed with determination as the runner-up in the Preakness while no threat to Big Brown. But the improving stretch-running colt posted victories at the highly competitive Fair Grounds and Churchill Downs meets and should fire again with new pilot, Garrett Gomez.
Fifth: Denis of Cork (4) - Passed 17 rivals to finish third in Louisville, an encouraging effort after his dismal showing as the even-money favorite in the Illinois Derby. He should be closer to a slow pace and make a late run, but it appears he will not offer a serious late threat. Jockey Robbie Albarado was edged aboard the magnificent Curlin in last year's running.
With the odds making win or even exacta wagering less than attractive, we will try to hit the trifecta looking for some value. Our wagers earned a profit of $471 in the Preakness after losing $120 in the Kentucky Derby.
$10 trifectas - Big Brown (1) over Casino Drive (5) over Tale of Ekati (7). Big Brown (1) over Casino Drive (5) over Macho Again (3). Big Brown (1) over Tale of Ekati (7) over Casino Drive (5). Big Brown (1) over Tale of Ekati (7) over Macho Again (3). Big Brown (1) over Tale of Ekati (7) over Denis of Cork (4).
Total bets - $50.
To view a slide show of Big Brown's workout at Belmont Park yesterday, go to http://go.philly.com/photos.EndText