All the elements are there. Two undefeated rivals, the fastest of their generation, one who came from half way around the world because he was bred for this moment in time. One no longer will be undefeated.
Then there’s Big Brown’s owner, trying to make it from Wall Street to Union Avenue the hard way. And the favorite’s trainer, who’s not only happy to be here but, like the old joke says, is happy to be anywhere.
And the would-be champion’s jockey, haunted by the memory of what happened under precisely the same circumstances, who has a chance to be vindicated, “to put closure on Real Quiet.” But he’s riding for his family now and his family has made him better.
1. BIG BROWN (2-5): If you look at his performance figures from the Preakness, he regressed from his Herculean Derby effort. But if you see the figure in the context of the overhead blimp shot at headstretch run, where he opened five lengths in three blinks of an eye, it almost qualifies as a soft win, accomplished without giving maximum effort. And what of the hoof issues? Everything Rick Dutrow has said about Big Brown since before the Florida Derby has been on target. The work of smithy Ian McKinlay with quarter cracks is legendary. If they’re not overly concerned, neither am I. Plugged Nickle won graded stakes with three patched hooves. Slew o’ Gold lost a three-horse photo in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on one healthy foot. No anabolic steroid shot for this race? He doesn’t need it. The feeling is that there will be a sense of déjà vu for Desormeaux as he approaches the top of the Belmont homestretch. Only this time, there will be no coming back to the field, no holding back from Desormeaux. Big Brown, by daylight.
2. GUADALCANAL (50-1): Long on pedigree but short on everything else, including a career victory. Nolan’s Cat was a maiden when he finished third to Afleet Alex in 2005. He cut his teeth on tougher before entering the Belmont. I saw Nolan’s Cat. I know Nolan’s Cat. And this colt’s no Nolan’s Cat.
3. MACHO AGAIN (20-1): Facing serious questions about his ability to go a route of ground successfully, he answered the doubters with a strong runnerup finish in Baltimore as he parlayed his rough-trip Derby Trial score into a classics placing. With nine starts, he clearly is the most experienced runner in the field and appears to be coming into his own right now. Although his Preakness trip wasn’t as bad as Icabad Crane’s, he was forced to steady a long time while awaiting room before angling outside to make an effective rally. Picks up the talented Garrett Gomez.
4. DENIS OF CORK (12-1): The colt has done little wrong and we wish we could say the same for his connections. But the owners misread the bounce theory, almost costing them a Derby starting berth, then passed the Preakness in favor of freshness. We don’t like hypotheticals but it‘s hard to find anyone who didn‘t think that a repeat of his Derby finish would have been good enough for a Preakness placing. Further, it might have had him tighter for today’s grueling 12 furlongs. David Carroll is a good horseman and his colt will be ready for the test. Robby Albarado rode Denis with eerie confidence in his only ride, winning the G3 Southwest Stakes. Major player.
5. CASINO DRIVE (7-2): It’s hard to make too much, positive or negative, of the training methods his connections. Japanese horsemen use methods more closely resembling those of European colleagues, and they have an extraordinary record when leaving home for fertile graded territory elsewhere. Until proven wrong, they have earned the benefit of the doubt. Casino Drive is the second fastest horse in the race going a distance ground among this year’s three-year-olds. His Peter Pan was not only eye pleasing but unusual for a horse giving away tons of experience and recent conditioning while moving way up in class. He has enough pedigree to run to Montauk and back and in Edgar Prado a Hall of Famer whose two Belmont upsets foiled as many Triple Crown bids. Formidable rival.
6. DA’ TARA (30-1): Fifth to Macho Again in the Derby Trial after getting humbled in Big Brown’s Florida Derby, he placed gamely after being pressed throughout in the listed Barbaro Stakes on the Preakness undercard. Since that effort he been training well on the Saratoga training track, those moves touting trainer Nick Zito on a run in the Belmont. He has attracted budding riding star Alan Garcia but is completely out of his element against this group, at this moment in time.
7. TALE OF EKATI (20-1): Poor Barclay. This colt’s first Belmont workout was too fast; the second too slow, but the third one was just right. His fourth-place Derby finish was first rate, racing closer to the pace than any other contender not named Big Brown and still finished with interest. It was his third start of the year after a non-effort in his season’s debut prior to the gritty Wood Memorial score. He’s ready to run the race of his three-year-old season now, has enough pedigree power and his next surface loss would be his first after three tries. Eibar Coa accepts the re-ride on the value play of Belmont 140.
8. ANAK NAKAL (30-1): What was is Nick Zito said about Birdstone before Smarty Jones’ Belmont Stakes? “Birdstone finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby, not eighteenth.” When last seen, Anak Nakal finished seventh, not seventeenth, in Big Brown’s Derby, after being forced to rally very wide into the Churchill Downs straight. Considering the first three finishers dominated, it wasn’t a bad effort at all. The problem is he’s deep closer, very anti-Belmont profile. He’s slow but his Equiform pattern is healthy. Could conceivably fill out the bottom of exotic wagering tickets.
9. READY’S ECHO (30-1): Following an overpowering maiden win at Gulfstream, the colt just missed in a Keeneland allowances before his bold-finish rally for third in Casino Drive’s Peter Pan, making up a ton of ground too late after his usual poor start. Connections have had no qualms about running here instead of the Colonial Derby on turf, noting an in-the-money finish here is of greater value than a victory at Colonial might be. Improving at the right time but, like Anak Nakal, his running style is anti-Belmont profile.
10. ICABAD CRANE (20-1): A winner of three of four prior to the Preakness, the connections of trainer Graham Motion and jockey Jeremy Rose were getting more attention than the colt prior to his Baltimore run. His races were good but extremely slow and he would need to jump up big time to be a Preakness factor. He did. While no match for Big Brown, a rough trip arguably cost him second money. He came out of Pimlico better than he went in, earning a starting spot in the final jewel. But he’ll have to jump up big time again; possible but highly improbable.
Most Probable Winner: Big Brown
Most Likely Upsetter: Casino Drive
Best Projected Money Finisher: Denis Of Cork
Best Value Play: Tale Of Ekati