Stranger things have happened


Almost overnight, United Parcel Service has installed signs all over Belmont Park. One on the starting gate asks "What can Brown do for you?"

Bad karma?

Like watching a race from the winner's circle?

Peanuts at the racetrack?

From this advertising-festooned barrier, Big Brown will begin a 12-furlong journey on Saturday that will carry him either to immortality or the 19th position on the list of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners who have failed in the race known as "The Test of the Champion."

Big Brown's trainer Rick Dutrow shrugs.

Nothing, insists the trainer carried by this colt to both fame and infamy, will stop Big Brown. Not the nine horses he will face in the 140th Belmont Stakes, not unearthly forces, nothing.

The rhetoric has been as consistent as the undefeated 3-year-old. He's been seen by some as the Great Brown Hope and others as a commercial for the controversial steroid, Winstrol, which is part of the regular regimen at Dutrow's stable.

"I can't imagine him being better," Dutrow said on Wednesday, while the central figure of this Triple Crown was given a day off after having worked five furlongs the day prior. "It's all good, babe."

Dutrow is no less confident than he was before the first two legs of the Triple Crown. He has dismissed the potential adverse effects of a cracked left-fore hoof that has been the Triple Crown's subplot for the last fortnight and to which an acrylic patch will be applied at some point prior to the most important afternoon of Big Brown's brief racing career. He has dismissed the competition as unworthy, spoken critically -- and inaccurately -- of trainer John Servis' preparation of Smarty Jones, who appeared before the 2004 Belmont Stakes to enjoy an overwhelming advantage over the opposition, only to be defeated by unheralded Birdstone.

"I just don't think there is any horse out there that can compete with him at this stage," Dutrow said. "The only horse that is even remotely close is Casino Drive and I'm not afraid of him at all. I have Big Brown. All you have to do is look at his races. He has the move he needs when he needs it. He has just erased whatever competition he has faced."

In sharp contrast to the horse whose morning-line odds were set at 2-5 after the post position draw, is the also unbeaten, Japanese-owned colt of whom Dutrow is "not afraid at all" but who is seen as the principal threat to Big Brown. His connections are soft-spoken, respectful and by American standards unconventional. Casino Drive comes with unique genetic credentials and a set of questions that will not be answered before the gates open on Saturday.

Casino Drive's siblings, Jazil and the filly Rags to Riches, have won the last two runnings of the Belmont Stakes, eliminating the question of his capacity to stay 12 furlongs. But Casino Drive's entire race record amounts to a maiden win in Kyoto, Japan, and an impressive American debut in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park on May 10.

Casino Drive's preparation for the Belmont Stakes has mystified American observers. He has not had a timed work since the Peter Pan Stakes, and his morning routine includes hour-long, meandering walks on the backstretch before and after gallops, some of which have been concluded with fast, if brief, flurries. This has inspired every form of conjecture from those who have awaited a sharp morning move: "Something must be wrong; the Peter Pan must have knocked him out. You can't win a mile-and-a-half race without a work in almost a month."  Three days before the Belmont, Casino Drive's routine varied only in the amount of time spent circling Belmont Park's picturesque paddock on a murky, wet morning.

Still, Casino Drive's trainer came up beneath the wing of Gavin Prichard-Gordon in Newmarket, and he has been Japan's leading trainer 11 times, while sending horses overseas to win races in New Zealand, France and the United States.

"This is a very good horse," said Nobutaka Tada, racing manager for owner Hidetoshi Yamamoto.  "He has been through a lot. He hurt his knee when he was two and didn't race until February. Then, we had to keep moving him from training center to training center and racetrack to racetrack when equine influenza came to Japan. He shipped from Japan to [the United States], 16 hours with a stop in Anchorage and had to go into quarantine at Aqueduct, then came out and won the Peter Pan. The owner is a sportsman and this horse is bred to win the Belmont Stakes. That is why we are here."

Eight others besides Casino Drive will oppose Big Brown in the Belmont. Three are horses he defeated in Kentucky, two in Baltimore and one is a maiden named Guadalcanal entered at the 11th hour by owner-trainer Fred Seitz, who is generally regarded in Kentucky as a reasonable man.

"We buy all of our horses through Dr. David Lambert, who is a heart scanner," Seitz said. "This horse has the heart of a stayer and the heart of a very, very good stayer. In his last race, he showed that he loves the distance. If you break the chart down, you will see that he got the last half-mile in 48 2/5 [seconds] and the last quarter in 23 2/5 [seconds]. We're not kidding ourselves. We know that we will be an extreme long shot here. But this race is all about getting the mile and a half, and we believe we have a horse that can do just that. Stranger things have happened."