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June 3, 2008

Sports: Only the Belmont itself can block Big Brown


The Belmont Stakes takes care of the Triple Crown. That’s its job. It’s the final “jewel” of the Triple Crown, the race at the end — the gatekeeper of history. If it’s “right” for Big Brown to become just the 12th horse to step into horse racing’s version of immortality — as the undefeated phenom will attempt to do

Saturday — then a Belmont victory will come to him, and in he’ll go. 

But if it isn’t right, he won’t get in. The gatekeeper won’t let him.

I know that sounds ridiculous, the personification of a horse race. But hey, people have been ascribing miracle characteristics to the Kentucky Derby forever. (And gotten away with it!) So why not the Belmont?

After all, the Belmont Stakes has kept a lot more undeserving horses from winning the Triple Crown than it has prevented deserving ones. If it were not for that uncanny trait, War Emblem could have taken a place alongside War Admiral, and Funny Cide would have joined Secretariat.

Certainly fine racehorses have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, but not passed the Belmont test. Spectacular Bid comes first in mind. It wasn’t Bid that lost his bid in 1979, it was those clever New York jocks who did in the horse’s inexperienced, minor-circuit rider. But so? The Belmont is run in New York, where they have clever New York jockeys.

The Belmont is not the hardest of the three Triple Crown races. The Kentucky Derby is by far the most difficult, because of the distance, the early spring date, the hoopla, the numbers of competitors — and, yes, the Derby Mystique. The Preakness is the easiest, especially for the Derby winner. The competition has thinned and the Derby winner is sharp. The horse simply comes back two weeks later and repeats. That’s why there have been 30 horses in 88 years to win both the Derby and Preakness.

But just 11 have gone on to New York and won a Triple Crown. As Woody Stephens used to say, “The buildings get taller when you cross that Hudson.”

And the race gets longer.

And this scribe loves that. The Belmont Stakes is North America’s one remaining race of importance at a distance of 1½ miles. There’s pressure all the time to shorten the Triple Crown races to better accommodate today’s go-go thoroughbreds and go-go trainers. But so far, no go-go.

Which places Big Brown right in the Big Question Mark. He’s a speed-bred horse. But so is his competition — and he’s definitely the fastest. Theoretically, the distance shouldn’t matter.

But the Belmont is not just about distance. It’s also Belmont Park, which is the biggest racetrack you’ll ever see. Vast grounds, green lawns and lines of trees hiding huge parking lots. A Yankee Stadium-sized grandstand, and a barn area so large it has three track kitchens. The track is 11/2 miles in circumference, with two turf courses within that. The stretch is actually shorter than the stretch at Churchill Downs. But the turns sweep on forever.

Big Brown’s best friend Saturday will be jockey Kent Desormeaux. Before the Derby, Desormeaux was asked if he wanted to have Big Brown on the lead, or maybe be fourth, or someplace, in the early part of the race.

Didn’t matter, said Kent.

“We’ll just come away from the gate and I’ll find my horse’s ultimate cruising speed,” said Desormeaux. “I’ll dial us into that, and that’s where we’ll be.”

Probably Saturday, too.

I doubt Big Brown will be threatened by the hype horse Casino Drive, who has only raced twice — a maiden victory in Japan, and a small stakes at 11/8 miles in New York. Big Brown will eat Casino Drive for lunch.

Best of the competition might be Macho Again, trained by Churchill-based Dallas Stewart. He’s gray like his sire line, and was running at the end of the Preakness to be second. Some people like Denis of Cork, also trained here, by David Carroll.

But what could happen to Big Brown?

Well, his front feet are bad, literally patched together. That’s not his fault. Lots of horses have bad feet. But when a horse hurts it will stop.

The racing gods also might not look kindly on Big Brown’s chemist trainer Rick Dutrow Jr., who has a history of “touching up” horses with performance-enhancing drugs. Or Michael Iavarone, the off-Wall Street moneychanger who manages the horse’s ownership.

But likeability is not a New York story line. This is more about staying the mile-and-a-half, and the exclusiveness of the Triple Crown club. The Belmont will get that right.

And as for all this hand wringing that it’s been 30 years since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown — well, that’s fine with me. Who’s in a hurry? They went 25 years between Citation and Secretariat. 


Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com