This time, racing could have savior it so badly needs

May 18, 2008|By PETER SCHMUCK

We've seen this before.

The Preakness has sent seven Triple Crown candidates to the Belmont Stakes since 1997, and you all know what happened to the other six. They all went the way of Smarty Jones instead of Secretariat.

They call New Orleans the "Big Easy." Maybe they ought to call Pimlico Race Course the "Big Tease."

Smarty and Funny Cide, War Emblem and Charismatic, Real Quiet and Silver Charm. They all went to New York to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. They all went home good horses instead of great history.

This year just might be different. This year, Big Brown charged out of the No. 20 slot at Churchill Downs and scared off all the competition. Only Gayego of the other 19 Derby horses made the trip to Baltimore, and, with fuel prices what they are these days, its owners probably would have been better off saving the airfare.

Big Brown duplicated his dominating Derby performance yesterday at Old Hilltop. The big bay colt took control at the clubhouse turn and cruised away from all the double-digit dreamers and the silly bettors who tried to take advantage of their inflated prices.

It was an amazing performance, considering all the extra weight Big Brown was carrying - the weight of the horse racing industry.

Could this horse be this generation's Seabiscuit, lifting up a troubled sport in its moment of need?

Maybe that's stretching a point, but the horse business has had to weather the tragic loss of two high-profile Triple Crown contenders over the past two years. It has found itself again in the crosshairs of the animal rights movement after the very visible death of Eight Belles at the Derby.

No one wanted to acknowledge the obvious, that just about everyone associated with the Triple Crown series was on edge yesterday, hoping against hope that the Preakness would go off without incident.

It did better than that, generating just enough suspense to keep the huge crowd engaged before Big Brown sent a signal to an entire nation of racing fans: The first Triple Crown in 30 years is more than a possibility. It's there for the taking.

"I know we have horse left," trainer Rick Dutrow said.

Of course, he'll need it. The Belmont is a unique test of speed and endurance. Big Brown and his handlers were in unfamiliar territory yesterday, with the colt coming back to race just two weeks after the Kentucky Derby. They'll get an extra week this time, but the 1 1/2 -mile third jewel has dashed so many dreams that even the overly confident Dutrow will have his work cut out for him.

Big Brown might be a horse for the ages, but he's going to have to run the marathon to prove it.

Jockey Kent Desormeaux talked about feeling a sense of deja vu when he asked the horse to make its move yesterday. For the sake of racing, we can only hope he has that same feeling a mile or so into the Belmont, because we've felt the other kind of deja vu in this situation too many times before.

Why will this time be different? Desormeaux, prodded by reporters after the race, gave Big Brown the best compliment a veteran jockey can bestow on a thoroughbred: "This is the best horse I've ever ridden. There, I said it," Desormeaux said.

No one was surprised to hear that, at least no one who watched that amazing run at Churchill Downs or the way Big Brown dispensed with his 11 competitors on a beautiful spring afternoon at Pimlico.

Just one more jewel to end a three-decade Triple Crown drought. Just one more big race from the latest candidate for thoroughbred immortality.

Big Brown was much the best yesterday. What happens three weeks from now will determine whether he is one of the best ever.

We've been teased before, but you have to like his chances.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Saturdays and Sundays.

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