Great push

The Baltimore Sun

ELMONT, N.Y.-- --Michael Iavarone's curiosity got the better of him, and when he saw a group of reporters assembled at Belmont Park yesterday, he immediately knew the object of their attention. So en route to visiting his own horse, the celebrated and sanctified Big Brown, Iavarone made a quick detour and parked his white Mercedes in front of Barn 17.

"This is the first time I've put my eyes on him," Iavarone said shortly after stepping out of his car. "He's a good-looking horse."

All eyes were directed at the large chestnut colt named Casino Drive, considered the top threat to spoil Big Brown's Triple Crown coronation in tomorrow's Belmont Stakes.

"He's clearly the intrigue in the race," Big Brown's owner said.

Interestingly enough, it would benefit Big Brown if Casino Drive, a Japanese-owned horse with peculiar training habits and only two races under his belt, can put together a good race tomorrow - but not too good.

The measure of a champion is winning. The measure of greatness, however, is competition. This is why a strong run by Casino Drive could go a long way toward validating Big Brown's proper place in history.

From almost the second Big Brown took the lead in the Preakness, there have been those who've opted to decry the current crop of 3-year-olds rather than sing Big Brown's praises. The idea being that, of course, Big Brown is the first across the finish line; the others can barely walk and chew hay at the same time.

"It's not his fault," Iavarone said. "I don't know how good this crop is. I don't think anybody does yet, because Big Brown has pretty much dominated the crop."

Because Big Brown will be rushed into the breeding shed, you can count on one hoof the number of races he has left in him, which means, win or lose, tomorrow will be the defining moment. Though a win of any margin earns him the Triple Crown - the sport's first since 1978 - winning against a formidable foe could vault his name into conversations involving the other greats, the Man o' Wars and the Citations and the Secretariats.

The last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, had a formidable rival in Alydar. War Admiral had Seabiscuit. Heck, outside of horse racing, Magic had Bird. Ali had Frazier. Evert had Navratilova. Each was made better because of the quality of competition. Each is remembered because of the challenge and the challenger who was overcome.

Big Brown can certainly win the Crown without such a test; the jewels just won't shine as bright.

"I think no matter what happens, there's always going to be question marks," Iavarone said. "Everyone's going to say, 'Well, he beat nothing.' But they can't take anything away from Big Brown. He has to go out there and do his thing whether he runs against the best horse in the world or the worst horse in the world."

No one is quite sure where Casino Drive fits on that scale. He has won his only two races, and everyone around the track is quick to note Casino Drive's pedigree, tailor-made for tomorrow's grueling 1 1/2 -mile run. His half-brother Jazil won here in 2005, and his half-sister Rags to Riches won last year.

Even before the Preakness, Big Brown's jockey, Kent Desormeaux, said Casino Drive is the only 3-year-old on the planet who could challenge Big Brown. Desormeaux should know; he had the mount in Casino Drive's win in the Grade II Peter Pan here at Belmont Park. Casino Drive posted a Beyer Speed Figure of 101. Seven days later, Desormeaux and Big Brown posted a 100 in winning the Preakness.

Impressed? Not surprisingly, Rick Dutrow isn't. Big Brown's trainer spotted Casino Drive on the Belmont track this week and watched him run in person for the first time.

"He can't beat Big Brown," Dutrow said later. "There's no way in the world he can beat Big Brown. I'm not worried about that horse anymore. ... He is just another horse in the race."

For all of his talk, Dutrow doesn't jump head-first into a discussion about Big Brown vs. History. "He's running with the horses he's running with," he said, "and that's all he can be expected to be matched up against."

Fair enough. Tomorrow very well might confirm that Big Brown is head and shoulders - and mane and tail - the cream of this crop. But the Triple Crown is bigger. It's the best of the best, not simply the best of the year. And to understand Big Brown's place on that list, we look to the other horses in the starting gate for context.

"I can't believe that of all the thousands of 3-year-olds in his generation that none of them can run," Iavarone said. "Maybe he is just a brilliant horse."

Thus far, it certainly seems that way. But history just might rely on a relative unknown like Casino Drive to either confirm that for us or debunk it.

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