Jockey Kent Desormeaux took what he called an "armchair" ride on Big Brown yesterday, easing his way down the front stretch at Pimlico Race Course to a memorable Preakness victory that will send him on a historic journey.
Just 1 minute, 54.80 seconds after leaving the starting gate, Big Brown crossed the line, his ears pricked, his legs rising and falling in a comfortable gallop, his closest competitor 5 1/4 lengths up the track.
Big Brown is going to the Belmont Stakes on June 7 with a shot at becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years.
"I've been blessed ... with a freak of a horse," Desormeaux said. "It was just the easiest win ever."
Bettors made him the 1-5 favorite, and Big Brown paid only $2.40 to win. Macho Again came home second and paid $17.20 and $10.40, while Icabad Crane, winner of the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico, was the surprising third-place finisher for Fair Hill-based trainer Graham Motion and paid $5.60.
"He's a superstar," said Dallas Stewart, trainer of second-place finisher Macho Again. "We hooked a great horse, but at the eighth pole it looked like he was just coasting."
Before the race, Big Brown's owners, IEAH Stables and Paul Pompa Jr., reached agreement with Three Chimneys on a breeding rights package that will retire him before his 4-year-old season.
But yesterday, Big Brown joined Majestic Prince (1969), Seattle Slew (1977) and Smarty Jones (2004) as the only undefeated Kentucky Derby winners to also win the Preakness. Now, he will go to New York with a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 and the 12th in history.
There have been 18 others with the opportunity who have failed, but confidence is not in small supply on the Big Brown team. The Woodlawn Vase had barely been accepted when trainer Rick Dutrow told all those waiting at Belmont to beware.
"I don't think I'm afraid of anything," said Dutrow, the Hagerstown native who grew up helping his father train horses at Pimlico. "I don't think that anything worries me as long as the horse comes out of the race good. We're going to point him to the race, try to get him there the best way we can and we're going to be excited and just be hoping for the best.
"I'm not afraid of a mile and a half. I'm not afraid of five weeks, three races. The horse just keeps impressing - any time they asked him for anything, he's been way ahead of us. He's waiting on us."
As an announced 112,222 race fans, the fifth-largest crowd in Preakness history, looked on in anticipation and apprehension, Big Brown gave his 11 competitors a head start - as did Kentucky Bear. Both horses slipped coming out of the starting gate.
But the entire Preakness field, as well as every horse that ran on yesterday's card, came home safe.
Big Brown was sharpened to perfection after an early-morning, two-furlong blowout to open his lungs and give him a suggestion of the race to come. But Desormeaux said his horse pushed off with such power his back feet slipped in the starting gate.
"The other horses were a yard away, and we were still standing there," Desormeaux said. "It was his second push that got us going."
The momentary late start put the pair on the inside in fourth as they headed for the first turn. Dutrow, watching from the stands, wasn't pleased.
"I wasn't planning on seeing him down on the inside, kind of looking to get trapped in there," Dutrow said. "You know, it looked kind of dangerous at that point."
But Desormeaux had the horse he considers the "best I've ever ridden" under him, and when Gayego and Riley Tucker moved ahead, Big Brown moved with them and then to the outside, putting him in what would be the perfect position.
As they rounded the turn, Desormeaux looked under his arm.
"What I saw was that everyone had gotten their horses running and they were all having to check their horses to slow them down," Desormeaux said. "When I saw they were all slowing down, I thought it was a good time to go."
Desormeaux, who started his Hall of Fame career in Maryland, smooched in Big Brown's ear and leaned his elbow into him and the pair took off.
"It was like deja vu to the Kentucky Derby," he said. "It almost looked like a replay. I kissed at him. I tapped him on the shoulder. He just took off. He's got some turn of foot."
Desormeaux smiled. He said he felt like every $2 bettor who does his own handicapping and picks the winner.
"I was right about my horse," he said. "I felt like I was right. I was happy. Success. I had the winning ticket. This is the best horse I've ever ridden. You've got to see what he can do. You feel proud that you didn't tell any stories, that you were right."
Tomorrow, Big Brown leaves for Belmont Park with a chance to make history.
"Everyone will want to be part of Big Brown and the Belmont Stakes," Dutrow said. "I think we'll just try to stay as calm and as humble as we can, but we're all excited about our chances to take the final leg."