Big Brown will win the Preakness. He will not win the Belmont.
Here's a look at how the next three-plus weeks will likely unfold and how you should bet the Preakness:
Big Brown probably won't run as well in the Preakness as he did in the Kentucky Derby, an effort that is even better than it looks on paper. He broke from the 20 post, was about five paths off the rail the entire trip and still obliterated his opponents. It was nothing short of sensational.
But that was off five weeks rest, a time period in which trainer Rick Dutrow was able to do things his way so far as the training routine goes. Now, two weeks after a huge effort, Big Brown is being pushed into a situation that makes the usually cocky Dutrow uncomfortable. Big Brown very well could bounce, which would mean taking a rather sizeable step in the wrong direction.
But that won't matter. Against a group of competitors better suited to a race like the Ohio Derby than a Triple Crown event, he can regress by several lengths and still beat this field easily. He is the only Grade I winner in the field and only one of two horses (along with Gayego) to crack the 100 mark on the Beyer Speed Figures. The competition stinks.
The only way to handicap the race is to pick the winner of the other race, the 12-horse contest for second place. From a betting and handicapping standpoint, that's a pretty interesting, wide-open event. I've got it down to five horses: Macho Again, Tres Borrachos, Kentucky Bear, Riley Tucker and Giant Moon. I will use this quintet underneath Big Brown in every exotic wager imaginable.
For the place and show spots, I am looking for horses that have at least some early speed because there doesn't figure to be a fast pace, and that should compromise the chances of horses like Behindatthebar, Racecar Rhapsody, Yankee Bravo and others. I also want a horse with decent speed figures who will represent value at the betting windows. The hope is to turn a 1-2 favorite into a 3-1 shot through exactas and trifectas.
As for the Belmont Stakes ...
The instant Big Brown crosses the wire in front in the Preakness, some will be ready to hand him the Triple Crown. Sure, it could happen. This is, after all, a very gifted horse. But the Belmont is the race in which he is really going to be up against it.
His first problem will be his workload. Here is a horse that has had some injury issues already and will be asked to run three huge efforts in the span of five weeks. He's going to have to be made of steel to hold up through all that. Chances are, he won't.
It's not the Preakness that swallows up Triple Crown contenders. It's the Belmont, the last stop on the long road through the winter and spring, that gets them. There's a reason why 10 straight Kentucky Derby-Preakness winners have been tripped up in the Belmont, all of them at very short prices. Most simply cannot duplicate their Derby and Preakness efforts.
A Big Brown that is likely to throw in a below-par race in the Belmont is going to have his hands full with the very talented Japanese horse, Casino Drive. Whereas Big Brown figures to be worn out, Casino Drive will be a fresh, lightly raced horse whose owner and trainer have plotted every move to have him peak on Belmont Day.
A few days before his horse's impressive win in the Peter Pan, stable manager Nobutaka Tada said that Casino Drive was not ready for his best.
"He should be better after this race," Tada said. "He's ready to run, but it's been more than two months since he raced and he had a 13-hour flight from Tokyo and quarantine. He needs a race."
His Peter Pan was an outstanding race. That he can, and should, run better is a scary thought.
A half-brother to 2006 Belmont winner Jazil and 2006 Belmont winner Rags to Riches, Casino Drive should flourish at the mile-and-a-half distance. Everything about him says he will be ready to run the race of his life in the Belmont. The same cannot be said for Big Brown.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at email@example.com.