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Big Brown carrying a big burden today

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / May 17, 2008

BALTIMORE - The names are part of thoroughbred history: Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. The last four of the 11 Triple Crown winners.

But there are other names, such as Man o' War, Native Dancer, Spectacular Bid, and Smarty Jones. Three-year-olds who stumbled once in the grueling and challenging three-race series of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. Since Sir Barton won the first Triple Crown in 1919, 44 horses have gone 2 for 3 in a Crown season, failing to win the Preakness or Belmont. Smarty Jones was the last Derby and Preakness winner to come up short, in 2004.

Affirmed was the last Triple Crown winner, but that was 30 years ago, the longest drought in history. If there is a consensus among horsemen, it is that the industry needs the booster shot such an accomplishment would provide.

Add the pressure now being applied following the death of Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago and it is clear horse racing needs a hero, a standard bearer.

Two years ago, it was Barbaro, following his spectacular victory in the Derby. But triumph turned to tragedy at the Preakness when Barbaro broke his leg and was eventually euthanized.

Today at the 133d Preakness at historic Pimlico Race Course, which has a small-town, county-fair feel for the big events, Big Brown will attempt to follow his Kentucky Derby victory with a win that would lead to a much-anticipated Belmont in three weeks.

Logic, and the numbers, suggest the 3-year-old son of Boundary will prevail today with ease, the same way he has done in his four previous races, winning by a combined 33 3/4 lengths.

The knock against Big Brown before the Derby was that he was inexperienced, with no races as a 2-year-old and only three as a 3-year-old. And in the Derby, Big Brown ran from post No. 20, where no Derby winner had won since 1929.

Trainer Rick Dutrow laughed at all that and said, "I've got the best horse. Case closed."

On Derby Day, Big Brown indeed was the best horse and the case was closed with a 4 3/4-length victory.

Not surprisingly, Big Brown's convincing win chased most of his Derby challengers away from the Preakness. Of the 20-horse Derby field, only Gayego, who finished 17th, decided to give it another shot. And yesterday, another challenger dropped out when trainer Todd Pletcher scratched Behindatthebar because of a bruised left front foot. With Big Brown 1-2 in the morning line, today's race looks like a battle for place and show.

"If you take Big Brown out of the equation, I think it's a pretty wide-open race," said trainer Eddie Plesa, who has entered Hey Byrn in the Preakness and is hoping for a miracle. "Big Brown is absolutely the horse to beat."

The tendency to embellish or project is easy with Big Brown, but it's all still premature. "Let's not get Big Brown in the Hall of Fame too soon here," said trainer Reade Baker, who will try to crash the party with Kentucky Bear, who did not run in the Derby because he did not have enough graded-stakes earnings to qualify.

If you want to look for a potential weakness, Dutrow may provide it.

"I don't like the two weeks [between races], but there is nothing I can do about it," said Dutrow, whose horse has normally had four- and five-week breaks between races. "I know he is going to react, it just becomes a matter of what we can get by with to win [today]."

And after winning the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby from outside posts, Big Brown will run from gate No. 7 in the 12-horse field. The feeling is Big Brown will be jostled on both sides at the start, which could cause early problems. That argument loses some energy when you look at his first race, at Gulfstream, when he broke from the No. 4 post and won by 12 3/4 lengths.

What we have here is a Preakness field that has no logical contenders to upset Big Brown. Which could make this afternoon's race a 1 3/16th-mile workout for Big Brown, and a fight for second for everyone else.

Kent Desormeaux, who will be aboard Big Brown today, offered the best perspective on what should happen. "[Big Brown] exudes confidence," said Desormeaux, "and it transfers over to me. I know the gun is loaded. All I've got to do is pull the trigger."

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.

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