June 06, 2008

If you've been reading the news emanating out of Belmont Park for the last week, you would think that Big Brown is the most beatable 2-to-5 favorite ever to leave the starting gate.

A sampling of the stories from Elmont, N.Y., says that the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner will not win Saturday's Belmont Stakes because, among other things, he will be slowed by the quarter crack in his hoof or because he is not bred to get the Belmont's 1 ½-mile distance or because his main rival, Casino Drive, is.

All of those are legitimate concerns (particularly the cracked hoof, though Touch Gold did upset Silver Charm's Triple Crown bid with a similar ailment in 1997), but none are enough to bet against him in the final leg of the Triple Crown. The fact is that no horse has come within 4 ¾ lengths of Big Brown in five races. He won the Preakness with his jockey, Kent Desormeaux, not asking him to run and he is the fastest horse in the race. (He owns the top three Beyer Speed Figures entering the Belmont.) He is an overwhelming pick to win the Belmont and, despite some of the recent anti-Big Brown sentiment, deservedly so.

If for some reason he does not fire on Saturday, the most likely candidate to don the blanket of carnations, as long as he doesn't scratch due to a left hind leg issue, is the aforementioned Casino Drive, second choice on the morning line at 7-to-2. The son of Mineshaft has the pedigree to get the Belmont's 12 furlongs. (The most repeated racing factoid over the last three weeks is that Casino Drive's dam, Better Than Honour, was the dam for the last two Belmont winners, Jazil and Rags to Riches.) And though he has raced just twice, both were impressive victories, including a 5 3/4-length win in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont four weeks ago.

The stretch-running Denis of Cork (12-1) also has a chance to surprise, particularly if Big Brown and Casino Drive get caught up in a match race on the front end. Unlike most of the horses in the Kentucky Derby, Denis of Cork was actually running at the end (he finished third). He should relish the Belmont's distance, and after five weeks of freshening he's positioned to make a forward move.

The most intriguing of the longshots is the Todd Pletcher-trained Ready's Echo (30-1). Even though he finished third and more than six lengths behind Casino Drive in the Peter Pan, Ready's Echo has improved as the distances have gotten longer and, in his four career starts, has never failed to be running at the end. While other horses are struggling to the wire on Saturday, he'll still be flying at 12 furlongs. And his tendency to leave the gate slowly won't hurt him as much over a mile and a half.

Macho Again and Tale of Ekati seem better suited to shorter distances. Da' Tara has the pedigree (sire is Tiznow) and connections (trainer is Nick Zito) to contend but will need a significant step forward. Anak Nakal, Icabad Crane and Guadalcanal are outclassed.

From a handicapping standpoint, assuming you like Big Brown to win, the only way to make any real money on the Belmont is to try to beat Casino Drive for the place. So the play is Big Brown over Denis of Cork and Ready's Echo in exactas with Big Brown over those two and Casino Drive in triples and supers.

From a racing fan standpoint, just sit back and enjoy what will most likely be history in the making.

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