Commentary

Big Brown not great, yet

Updated: May 24, 2008, 6:42 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Even should he win the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown, Big Brown will remain an enigma. He might be one of the greatest horses ever or he might be just a good horse who has been beating up on a terrible crop of 3-year-olds. With his limited body of work, no one can really answer that question. At least for now, though, I'm leaning toward the latter description.

I won't bestow greatness on Big Brown until he runs fast. How can you?

Big Brown's performances have been nothing short of brilliant. In the highest-level races, he toys with his opponents. But as visually impressive as his wins have been, they are not particularly fast races. Based on his Beyer figures, the sport's most widely accepted measurement of speed and ability, Big Brown is far from exceptional when compared to recent winners of Triple Crown races.

He ran a 109 in the Kentucky Derby, precisely the average winning number since 1992 and well below the numbers turned in by the likes of War Emblem (114), Monarchos (116) and Silver Charm (115). His Preakness number was a 100, the slowest winning Beyer number in that race since Prairie Bayou ran a 98 in 1993.

The Daily Racing Form's Steve Crist researched the Beyer numbers of the last six horses to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown and found that the combined Derby-Preakness Beyer numbers for all six are better than Big Brown's.

Coming into the Belmont, he doesn't even have the best last race figure. That belongs to Casino Drive, who ran a 101 when winning the Peter Pan.

And he's certainly not the fastest horse in training. That title belongs to Curlin, who ran a 119 when he won the Breeders' Cup Classic last year. Now 4, and, presumably bigger, stronger and faster than he was last year, Curlin should climb into the 125 neighborhood before this year is over. Based strictly on the numbers, Curlin would trounce Big Brown right now.

Of course, there's every chance that Big Brown could run faster, maybe even considerably faster, than he has been. His wins are so effortless that he gives the impression that he's not running near full speed and would have an extra gear or two should anyone ever challenge him. Maybe Casino Drive will push him in the Belmont, something no one else among the potential starters seems capable of doing.

Then again, maybe the Belmont will be more of the same for Big Brown, another facile win in which he runs a mediocre time. If that turns out to be the case, even with a Triple Crown sweep under his belt, he will have a big hole on his resume. To retire him at that point is to risk having Big Brown go down in history as the Triple Crown winner who left the game with something to prove. That's never happened before.

The hope is that IEAH Stables and Rick Dutrow will be true to their word and run Big Brown after the Belmont. That may not make the most economic sense, but it could be their only chance to prove just how great their horse is. Let him win the Travers in a fast time and beat Curlin in the Breeders' Cup. Then, Big Brown can go down in history as one of the best ever.

***

Good for Congress for taking a serious look at horse racing's addiction to drugs.

The U.S. House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection has had racing on its radar screen for a while and wants some answers as to why the sport has been so slow and so reluctant to clean up the drug mess.

The committee's latest move was to send a letter to the Association of Racing Commissioners International in which it cited its concerns that "leading officials in the sport" have failed to tackle long-standing concerns over the welfare of the thoroughbred horse. The ARCI, which represents racing commissions in 44 jurisdictions, has some explaining to do on behalf of the industry.

Something dramatic has to be done to clean up this game, which is overrun with drugs, legal and otherwise. The industry seems incapable or unwilling to do it itself. Enter Congress, which has tremendous power over the sport because it can pull the plug on all simulcasting, which exists only because the federal government made it legal.

Congress needs to put the hammer down, insist that the industry make all drugs illegal, add millions to the current woefully insufficient amount it allocates for drug testing and finally put some teeth into the suspensions it hands out to the cheaters. Give the sport one year to clean itself up or else, the "or else" being an end to simulcasting as we know it.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com