I have good news for you horse racing fans! This is going to be yet another horse racing post, and so obviously if you do not like horse racing, I don't really care. As you are no doubt aware of by now, Big Brown did go on to win the Preakness Stakes impressively by 5 1/4 lengths in 1:54.86. The margin could have been a lot more if Kent Desormeaux had allowed Big Brown to really throw down for longer in the race, but Desormeaux wisely thought to save some of the horse's energy for the Belmont Stakes on June 7.
Big Brown is already in New York as I write, getting set for his attempt to become the first US Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Big Brown has dominated every single horse that has ever raced against him. The case can be made that we have yet to truly see Big Brown at his best because he has never been truly challenged. And I will be honest, as impressive as Big Brown looked in the Preakness, his competition was truly atrocious. Andrew Beyer put it best in his article when he said "[r]arely do a horse and rider win any kind of race...with such obvious disdain for the competition." That Big Brown was able to win so easily should not have been a surprise. (Heck, I essentially stated that Big Brown could win this race in essentially the way in which he did and I am clearly no expert - please ignore those picks for second and third place.) However, there still appear to be many people who refuse to acknowledge the quality of races that Big Brown has run (irrespective of what the "competition" might have done in the races), and continue to grasp at straws for why Big Brown should be unqualified to win this Triple Crown.
Before the Kentucky Derby, the story was that Big Brown was too lightly raced and that no horse since 1929 had won the race from post 20, Big Brown's assigned post in the Derby. Of course the naysayers seemed to heavily discount the quality of Big Brown's prior starts when assessing his Derby chances. In Big Brown's maiden run in 2007, he won the 1 1/16 mile turf race in a very fast 1:40.33, while setting quarter-mile fractions of 23.19, 47.54 (24.35), 1:11.84 (24.3), and 1:34.46 (22.62). Now turf (grass) times tend to be faster than dirt times, so on dirt one would expect slower times, however, notice that the second half mile that Big Brown ran (46.92) was faster than the first (47.54). He won this race by 11 1/4 lengths.
In Big Brown's second race, and first of this year, he ran a mile on dirt and set quarter-mile fractions of 22.95, 45.31 (22.36), 1:09.87 (24.56), and finished in 1:35.66 (25.79). This might seem like a disappointing time, but watch the race. The race was a joke. Kent Desormeaux never had to ask Big Brown to run hard and he just cruised in for the win. Nearing the top of the stretch you can see Desormeaux looking around behind him for other horses - something that would become a familiar sight in later races. The key is that if asked Big Brown probably could have gone two seconds faster in this race. He won this race by 12 3/4 lengths.
The next race for Big Brown, and the one that installed him as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, was the March 29 1 1/8 mile Florida Derby. The Florida Derby was the last Kentucky Derby prep race that the great Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro contested in 2006. In that Florida Derby, Barbaro did the seemingly incredible, winning the race from post 10 in a time of 1:49.01. The fractions for that race were 23.45, 47.35 (23.9), 1:11.37 (24.02), and 1:36.08 (24.71). Barbaro won that race by about a quarter length. When Big Brown ran the race, he won from an even more impressive post 12 in 1:48.16, setting splits of 22.76, 45.83 (23.07), 1:10.08 (24.25), and 1:35.18 (25.1). Big Brown won the Florida Derby by five lengths. Clearly Big Brown's Florida Derby was more impressive. He broke from a more disadvantageous position, set faster fractions in leading from wire-to-wire, and his final eighth of a mile was nearly as fast as Barbaro's (12.98 for Big Brown versus 12.93 for Barbaro) even though Big Brown had the race in hand and was not being pushed to finish.
Then we come to the Kentucky Derby. The race has been discussed widely because of the ill-fated run of Eight Belles. Despite this tragedy, the run by Big Brown was truly spectacular. Again starting from post 20, Big Brown won the 1 1/4 mile race in 2:01.82 in which the fractions were 23.3, 47.04 (23.74), 1:11.14 (24.1), and 1:36.56 (25.42). What may not be immediately obvious, and if you do the math (and I've done the math), you will realize that the last quarter mile, in 25.26, was faster than the second to last quarter mile. Essentially this means that the pace to the mile mark was not an overly taxing pace for Big Brown as he still was able to accelerate late in the race. Big Brown won by 4 3/4 lengths over Eight Belles, with another 3 1/2 lengths back to third place Denis of Cork.
And finally we come to the Preakness. There is no secret that Big Brown won the race. As stated above, he went the 1 3/16 mile course in 1:54.86, with fractions of 23.59, 46.81 (23.22), 1:10.48 (23.67), and 1:35.72 (25.24). Big Brown was able to win this race by 5 1/4 lengths with Desormeaux slowing him down well before he had crossed the line. Big Brown probably could have won by more than 10 lengths had Desormeaux allowed him.
Two weeks from today is the Belmont Stakes, the 1 1/2 mile race that has doomed ten Triple Crown contenders in the last thirty years. Many have said that Big Brown has the best shot at winning the Crown since the great Spectacular Bid in 1979. The new horse that everyone is talking about that supposedly has a shot at derailing Big Brown is Casino Drive. There are three main factors that the "experts" point to when assessing Casino Drive's chances. First of all, he is half-brother (sharing the same mother) to the last two Belmont Stakes winners, Jazil in 2006 and Rags to Riches in 2007. And second of all, people point to Casino Drive's victory at Belmont Park in the 1 1/8 Peter Pan Stakes on May 10 in 1:47.87. Casino Drive won this race by five lengths with Kent Desormeaux as his jockey. It's a very impressive time, better than Big Brown's time at the same distance in the Florida Derby, with quarter mile splits of 23.08, 46.31 (23.23), 1:10.47 (24.16), and 1:35.26 (24.79). The third main factor that people use is that Casino Drive will be the more rested horse.
Casino Drive hasn't received nearly the same scrutiny that Big Brown has. Would you care to know how many lifetime races Casino Drive has completed as he prepares for the Belmont? Two. The Peter Pan Stakes was Casino Drive's second lifetime race. Why is there no talk about whether such a lightly raced horse such as Casino Drive able to win such a demanding race as the Belmont as there was for Big Brown heading into the Kentucky Derby? Additionally, is the fact that Casino Drive is half brother to the last two Belmont winners really that strong of a piece of evidence? Put in another way, might it not be more chance than anything else that Jazil and Rags to Riches happened to win the Belmont? Surely there have been well-bred horses born from the same mare who have shown varying abilities to perform over the last several decades. Why should it be the case that simply because Casino Drive's two half siblings won the last two Blemonts that Casino Drive should have a reasonable chance to upset Big Brown? Oh, that's right, Casino Drive did have that big performance in the Peter Pan Stakes. However, that performance is somewhat deceptive, and is in my opinion not as impressive as Big Brown's Florida Derby victory.
One of the things that I have never heard discussed is the dimensions of the tracks on which the horses have run. The Belmont Park main racecourse, on which the Belmont Stakes will be contested and on which the Peter Pan Stakes took place, is a 1 1/2 mile racecourse. The straights of the Belmont course are 1940 feet, which leaves 2020 feet for each of the curves. The Gulfstream Park course, where the Florida Derby took place, is a 1 1/8 mile racecourse, and as nearly as I can tell, the straights are about 1370 feet while the curves are 1600 feet. (This is a rough estimate based on using the Gmaps Pedometer, but it is close enough for qualitative and quantitative purposes.) Casino Drive ran a single turn in his Peter Pan win while Big Brown ran two turns in his Florida Derby win. Anyone who has ever run in races knows that it is harder to maintain a high speed on a tighter curve than it is on a more gradual turn. That Big Brown ran a longer distance on tighter curves (3200 feet versus 2020 feet) and actually had to run a few horses wide on the first turn as a result of the disadvantageous 12 post start position (actually increasing the distance that he ran), and only ran .29 seconds slower than Casino Drive, who was able to stay along the rail for pretty much the entire race, is impressive. Each horse won by five lengths and so it is unclear as to whether either was going all out as the race ended.
The biggest that I see with those who are discounting Big Brown's chances is that it seems virtually everyone ignores the fact that Big Brown seems to listen to and obey Kent Desormeaux's every command. From all appearances, Big Brown will not go off chasing an insanely fast pace on his own, and I doubt that Kent Desormeaux would direct him to do so. From what I've seen, the only way to defeat Big Brown is to set some pace that is fast enough that he will have his kick taken out of him. So far, none of these other horses have demonstrated this ability. In the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, Big Brown was positioned just off of the pace as he reached the quarter pole, and then once Desormeaux gave him the green light, he accelerated away from the field, gapping them by three to four lenghts in a matter of a few strides. I don't think any of the horses that ran against Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness are good enough to set such a fast pace that will break Big Brown. And in those last two races, once Big Brown pulled away the distance widened without Kent Desormeaux asking for the full effort out of Big Brown. (This was certainly the case in the Preakness, but I believe it was also the case in the Kentucky Derby.) I don't think that Casino Drive would be likely to set the pace in the Belmont and I have not seen anything out of this horse to suggest that he can handle that Big Brown acceleration when it inevitably comes.