Crown calling

All eyes are on Big Brown in horse's quest for second jewel

Preakness Preview

May 17, 2008|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN REPORTER

Big Brown looked to be the real deal as he galloped to victory in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago. Now the question is: Can he back it up?

Can he breeze through the 12-horse Preakness, the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, in its 133rd running at Pimlico Race Course today and roll into New York and the Belmont Stakes as a true Triple Crown contender?

Is Big Brown destined to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed 30 years ago? Or is he just another tease?

"I have the idea that this has already been written," said Kent Desormeaux, Big Brown's jockey. "I rode Fusaichi Pegasus, and that horse getting beat [in the Preakness] just staples it in my mind. ... I thought there was no way he could lose and he was destined to win the Triple Crown.

"How?" Desormeaux said. "I still don't know ... but Pegasus' performance here helps me to identify those 11 Triple Crown runners and what freaks they were to be able to do what they did. ... Pegasus is what reminds me that they still have to run [today] and that there is no guarantee.

"I only know Big Brown is the fastest horse I've ever ridden and that he is the best horse I've ever ridden. Will he show up? That's what's so exciting about [today]."

As the industry grapples with safety issues and the public turns its eyes to Pimlico today, the excitement will be accompanied by apprehension.

It has been just two weeks since the collapse and euthanizing of filly and second-place finisher Eight Belles after the Kentucky Derby, and two years after 2006 Derby winner Barbaro took a catastrophic misstep at the Preakness that eventually led to his death.

"We all hold our breaths every time we run a horse, whether it is in a $5,000 claiming race or a stakes," trainer Ken McPeek said. "You don't want to see anything happen. You know, in this game, it's painful when it happens. We don't want it to happen and if it does, it will be difficult."

A dozen horses will go to post today at 6:17 p.m., after Behindatthebar, the morning line third choice, was scratched yesterday with a bruised left heel. And 11 of them will be taking aim at Big Brown.

"The favorite is obviously everyone's concern," said McPeek, who will send Racecar Rhapsody to post. "Everyone is looking at him as a special horse."

But if anyone knows about the possibility of an upset, it is McPeek, whose colt Sarava crushed War Emblem's Triple Crown bid at the 2002 Belmont Stakes.

"Big Brown has never been in between horses like he will be this weekend," McPeek said. "I don't know if he's ever run on a sloppy track [he hasn't]. A lot of things happen in racing. If you get horses in front of him, will he be able to handle it? Will he take dirt in his face and keep on running? If he handles it, fine. He'll deserve [the victory]."

But McPeek said he thinks the undefeated Big Brown, who will be running in only his fifth career race, is still learning and can be beaten.

"Is he raw and talented? Yes," said McPeek. "But he still has to be battle-tested."

Big Brown's trainer, Rick Dutrow, came back from watching his horse take an 8:30 a.m. jog around Pimlico's muddy track in new shoes that were glued on Wednesday and said his horse enjoyed the mud.

He also said he expects to give the colt a short blowout in the stretch this morning.

"I've never done it with him before, but I feel it will help him," Dutrow said. "That's all."

Asked about his perspective on today's race, the trainer initially said the only thing he was worried about was whether his girlfriend's plane would arrive on time. But he then said his only real concern was his horse getting a good break out of the gate.

"It's all about the break for us," said Dutrow, who recalled how War Emblem's Triple Crown bid failed after he nearly fell to his knees leaving the gate in the Belmont, giving up distance he never recovered. "This race is ours to lose. I think that he is the best horse in the race, and I think if he breaks with the field, he'll win the race.

"When you come out of the gate and the horse stumbles pretty bad, right away horses are in front of them and you've got a lot of things that you have to deal with. So the break is the only issue we have. If he breaks clean, things will be right there for him. If he wants the lead or wants to sit off it, whatever he wants to do."

Dutrow again voiced his discomfort with running his horse back in two weeks but said he didn't think it was enough of a concern to cost him victory.

"He looks like he's going to run his race, but two weeks is a question mark," Dutrow said. "I don't see it as a question mark as to where he's supposed to get beat, but I just can't feel as confident as I did with the Derby."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

AT A GLANCE

What: 133rd Preakness, second jewel of the Triple Crown

When: Today, 6:17 p.m. post time

Where: Pimlico Race Course

Distance: 1 3/16 miles

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Field: Twelve 3-year-olds

Favorite: Big Brown, 1-2

Purse: $1 million. First place: $650,000. Second place: $200,000. Third place: $100,000. Fourth place: $50,000.

Gates open: 8 a.m.

First race: 10:30 a.m.

Weather forecast: Temperatures in mid-70s with a 30 percent chance of showers.

New this year: Alcoholic beverages cannot be brought into the clubhouse or grandstand.

Online: Go to baltimoresun.com throughout the day for blogs and updates.

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