We've been here before
"It's easy to get caught up in the moment, and that's what we should be doing now," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who watched Big Brown toy with 11 overmatched foes in the 133rd running of the Preakness Stakes from Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on Saturday. "Yet from a guy that's been in it before, you've got to be just a little bit cautious."
Lukas isn't ready to deify the unbeaten son of Boundary, who on June 7 will be bidding to become thoroughbred racing's 12th Triple Crown winner. The last horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes was Affirmed in 1978, and Lukas is mindful of the fact that 10 horses since then have come to the Belmont off victories in the first two legs. Lukas, with a career total of 13 wins in Triple Crown races, brought Charismatic to the Belmont off Derby and Preakness victories in 1999, but the Summer Squall colt finished third while suffering a career-ending injury.
"We certainly saw the best horse today and the best horse so far this spring, without a doubt," Lukas said of Big Brown. "But just a few years ago we saw Smarty Jones and Funny Cide just cruising to victories in this race." Smarty Jones won the 2004 Preakness by 11½ lengths, one year after Funny Cide was a 10½-length winner. Both were overtaken in deep stretch of the Belmont, at 1½ miles the longest of the three Triple Crown races.
Big Brown's margin of victory over runner-up Macho Again was 5¼ lengths, with jockey Kent Desormeaux never using the whip and wrapping up on the colt in the final 16th of a mile. His final time was 1:54.80 for 1 3/16 miles on a fast track.
"A dominating Derby winner ran a dominating race today," Lukas said. "But those other dominating horses end up having to do it again in three weeks, and I've always said it's not just a Triple Crown -- it's a demanding five-race series, because you almost always have to have two good ones in front of it just to get in the Derby itself. Big Brown is lightly raced, and he's got that in his favor. Frankly, I think he will win it, but it's not a given. Physically he looks like he's getting it all together, and the concerns with his feet seem to be behind him. We've got an excellent chance to get a Triple Crown winner, and we certainly are overdue. We could use one right now."
Lukas said he didn't do a lot with Charismatic in the three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont, only breezing him twice. Big Brown's trainer, Rick Dutrow, said after the Preakness he intends to give the colt one timed workout before the Belmont. He has been careful not to work the colt too hard because of problems he's had with quarter cracks in his feet, which have been aided by glue-on shoes that have a protective padding.
"Rick hasn't made any mistakes so far," Lukas said, "but he's in uncharted waters now. There are no preparations for going a mile and a half. So he's got to read his horse very carefully and evaluate his strengths going into this final leg."
Trainer Bob Baffert has brought three horses to Belmont Park with a chance to win the Triple Crown: Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. Real Quiet came the closest, losing by a nose to Victory Gallop.
Baffert was at Saratoga when Big Brown broke his maiden on turf Sept. 3 last year and tried to buy him. "We got blown out of the water," said Baffert, who is kicking himself for not buying the colt when he sold for just $60,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October yearling sale in 2006. "That would have been nice, turning $60,000 into $60 million."
He was referring to the stallion syndication deal announced Preakness Day between Robert and Blythe Clay's Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., and Big Brown's owners, IEAH Stables and Paul Pompa Jr. Though estimates on the deal went as high as $60 million, financial details were not disclosed. Big Brown's owners said the colt will not race as a 4-year-old.
"This is the horse we've all been waiting for," Baffert said of Big Brown. "We all want a horse like this.
"When he wins, he doesn't turn a hair. He doesn't get excited. He knows he is so good. In the paddock before the Preakness, it was like nothing for him. And then, when he came back after the race, that horse didn't look like he even took a deep breath."
Baffert then paid Big Brown the ultimate compliment: "This is the best horse I've seen since I've been in the business."
There are only two obstacles between Big Brown and a Triple Crown victory, according to Baffert: the quarter cracks that plagued him earlier this year and the Japanese horse Casino Drive, who made an impressive U.S. debut, winning the May 10 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park in only his second career start. Casino Drive was produced from Better Than Honour, the dam of the past two Belmont winners: Jazil and Rags to Riches.
"If the Japanese horse wasn't in there, it would be a gimme," Baffert said. "He's the only horse I see that has the quality even close to Big Brown."
What advice, if any, does Baffert have for Dutrow over the next few weeks?
"Just keep those shoes on him, babe. That's all you need to do."
Ray Paulick is a Lexington, Ky.-based journalist who served as editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse from 1992 to 2007. Over the past 25 years he has covered thoroughbred racing, breeding and sales on six continents and more than a dozen countries and appeared on numerous television and radio news programs offering his expertise on the industry. Contact Ray at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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• Finley: Un-American
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• Paulick: We've been here before