When trainer Rick Dutrow arrived at his Pimlico Race Course barn yesterday morning to see Preakness winner Big Brown, he was wearing a smile and a Triple Crown hat.
"The hat?" he said. "It doesn't mean anything. It was just around."
It was the smile that never seemed to leave his face that told the story.
His 3-year-old colt had easily won the Preakness on Saturday, setting the stage for an assault on the Triple Crown at Belmont Park.
If Dutrow and jockey Kent Desormeaux, who began their careers in Maryland, and Big Brown can get the job done June 7, they will become the first Triple Crown winners since Affirmed in 1978.
And only the 12th in history.
It is not an easy task. But to this point, Big Brown has made it look easy. Five wins in five starts by a total of 39 lengths. With a horse like Big Brown, even what has gone unaccomplished for 30 years seems possible.
"Certainly he can win the Belmont," Dutrow said with a glance at his horse, standing with his ears pricked, listening to his trainer. "If he comes out of this race good and trains good, I don't see a problem. It looks like he's ready."
But the Belmont Stakes is called "the Test of Champions" for a reason. It is run over a 1 1/2 -mile course at the end of a grueling five-week period in which Triple Crown contenders have already run two daunting races, the 1 1/4 -mile Kentucky Derby and the 1 3/16-mile Preakness. In the past 12 years, six other horses have had this opportunity and failed in the Belmont.
It is a huge stage for Dutrow, who was born in Hagerstown, learned his trade from his late father, Dick Dutrow, at Pimlico, Laurel Park and what is now the Bowie Training Center, and now works and lives in New York.
"It's not the first horse he has ever shipped or run at Pimlico," said trainer Larry Jones, whose late filly Eight Belles came closer than any other horse so far to staying with Big Brown when she finished second by 4 3/4 lengths in the Kentucky Derby. "But there's not a lot of people who can come back to their family home and win a Triple Crown race. [He's] got to feel good."
Feel good? Dutrow said he feels so good about having won the Preakness, he doesn't need any other perks.
"Sure, it was nice coming here, seeing friends, family, seeing my uncle," he said. "But we just won the Preakness.
"There's only one living trainer who has won the Triple Crown [Billy Turner, who won with Seattle Slew in 1977]. This only comes around once in a lifetime."
Because Dutrow's stables are about eight miles from Belmont Park at Aqueduct, the trainer has asked his friend Bobby Frankel for a stall in his barn at Belmont so Big Brown can train daily at the track where he will next race.
"I'm not excited about the horse coming [today] so much as I'm excited for Rick," Frankel said. "He has one of the best horses I've ever seen - including Secretariat [the 1973 Triple Crown winner]."
Frankel first became friends with Dutrow's father in the late 1960s, when they had horses stabled in Maryland, and he remains a close family friend. He said the fields Big Brown has been beating have not been great but that that doesn't detract from what the colt is doing.
"He's doing it so easy," Frankel said. "He could have beaten that Preakness field by 10 lengths if he had wanted to. I just can't see him getting beat."
Trainer Paddy Gallagher, whose Yankee Bravo finished 10th in Saturday's race, said: "Big Brown might win the Belmont [by a bigger margin] than Secretariat [31 lengths]."
Dutrow acknowledged that Big Brown might be able to, but wondered why he would want to.
"I don't see that being necessary," Dutrow said. "I like to save my horses so they have something left for the next time."
Saturday, when Desormeaux realized he had an eight-length lead, he let up on Big Brown, allowing the colt to gallop home easily, 5 1/4 lengths ahead of the field.
Desormeaux, who won four riding titles, two of his three Eclipse Awards and 533 races here in the late 1980s, said afterward that he was so comfortable on the ride, he felt as if he was in an armchair. He also said he enjoyed winning the Preakness as much as, if not more than, the Derby, just as he had with Real Quiet in 1998.
"This is my home," Desormeaux said. "Maryland, my Maryland. I cut my teeth in the industry here. Coming here, it feels like when I go home to my mother's house and I walk into my bedroom. That's how I feel when I arrive in Maryland."
Dutrow is not as quick to voice his feelings for his home state, but when his old friend, Bowie-based trainer Larry Horning, showed up, his smile grew larger and he greeted him with a bearhug.
"Ricky and I grew up together, working for his dad," Horning said. "His dad had two strings of horses, and Ricky and I took care of the young horses at Bowie. If there was anyone born to be a trainer, it was Ricky."
Asked whether he was surprised to see Dutrow with a horse like Big Brown and an opportunity for a Triple Crown, he shook his head.