ELMONT, N.Y. -- When Big Brown breaks from the gate in the 140th Belmont Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park, he will begin the longest and most demanding race he will ever be in. And if Big Brown is successful in adding the 1 1/2-mile Belmont to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, he will become the 12th Triple Crown winner, and the first in 30 years. No matter what, though, this Belmont will bring to a close a Triple Crown campaign that has been punctuated by glorious wins, crushing losses, and no small amount of controversy, both on and off the track.
Big Brown has won all five of his starts by a combined margin of 39 lengths. He has been clearly superior to other 3-year-olds of this generation. At the Derby, however, his runaway victory was overshadowed by the death of the filly Eight Belles, who finished second but then was euthanized minutes later because of catastrophic injuries.
That death put racing under a microscope, leading to calls for reform on issues such as the use of steroids, and spurring protests from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Big Brown's subsequent romp in the Preakness temporarily tamped down the hysteria, but in the weeks following that race, there has been further controversy over the legal use of steroids by Big Brown, a quarter crack that developed in Big Brown's left front foot, and the past financial contretemps of Michael Iavarone, the co-president of the IEAH Stable syndicate which co-owns Big Brown.
Richard Dutrow Jr., the trainer of Big Brown, on Thursday said Big Brown had not received any steroids since mid-April, before the Triple Crown began.
Dutrow, who has been suspended in the past for infractions involving both himself and his horses, also has been a lightning rod, with many rival trainers put off by his denigrating the horses Big Brown has faced, though journalists have found him extremely accessible and colorfully quotable.
"I'm relaying everything I see from Big Brown to the media," Dutrow said. "I don't feel I'm talking big. I feel I'm talking facts."
When the horses break from the gate, though, all that will fade to the background. The focus will be on the whether Big Brown can add his name to a list that comprises Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed.
In the 30 years since Affirmed won the Triple Crown, 10 other horses - Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, and Smarty Jones - have won the Derby and Preakness but failed in the Belmont.
Big Brown is the 2-5 favorite on the morning lines set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, and Eric Donovan of Belmont Park. Nine horses are entered against him, most notably Casino Drive, the unbeaten colt from Japan who won the Peter Pan Stakes four weeks ago and whose dam, Better Than Honour, produced the two previous Belmont winners, Jazil and Rags to Riches. Other top contenders are Denis of Cork and Tale of Ekati, who were third and fourth in the Derby.
Big Brown's payoff if he wins: about $2.80. First prize in the Belmont: $600,000. A Triple Crown: priceless.
"I just can't imagine what I'm going to feel when he turns for home," Dutrow said.
A record crowd of 120,139 attended the Triple Crown bid by Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont. This year's crowd could approach that, though the weather may be oppressive. A heat wave is forecast to arrive by Saturday. According to Weather.com, the high temperature will be 91 degrees, following a high of 74 Friday. There is only a 10 percent chance of rain.
The Belmont is the 11th race on a 13-race card that begins at noon Eastern time. Post time for the Belmont is 6:25 p.m. It will be shown live on ABC from 5-7 p.m., with earlier races on ESPN from noon to 5. The Belmont is the final leg of pick four and pick six wagers that both have pools guaranteed at $1 million.
Big Brown will start from the rail. If he breaks well, he will be on or near the lead, Dutrow said.
"How could we not go the first sixteenth of a mile just to get in front, and make sure no one folds over on him?" he said.
The last horse to win the Belmont from the rail was Empire Maker in 2003 for trainer Bobby Frankel. Big Brown has been stabled in Barn 2 this week, which is where Frankel, a friend of Dutrow, has horses. Big Brown is in the same stall that Empire Maker occupied.
Big Brown returned to the track for an easy training session early Thursday morning. He worked on Tuesday, then walked on Wednesday. Thursday, he jogged once around Belmont's main track with exercise rider Michelle Nevin, who said the muddy surface "was hard."
Dutrow said Big Brown's quarter crack was not a problem, and that he was doing so well that Ian McKinlay, the foot specialist who has been treating Big Brown, did not check on the colt Thursday. McKinlay was scheduled to put an acrylic patch on the quarter crack Friday afternoon.
Dutrow said criticism over running Big Brown with a quarter crack was naive or ignorant.
"I know we are doing the right thing with our horse," Dutrow said. "Just watch how things unfold. If he runs terrible and comes back with a bleeding foot, criticize us. But if he does what we think he'll do, then maybe they can say we handled him the right way."
Tale of Ekati also has had medical work done on him in the past fortnight. His trainer, Barclay Tagg, on Thursday said Tale of Ekati had a "very minor procedure" on his throat after working six furlongs in 1:18.20 on May 26.
"He displaced his palate in the work," Tagg said. "I didn't want to run the risk of it happening in the Belmont. He didn't miss a day of training."
Tale of Ekati came back to work six furlongs in 1:11.80 on Sunday.
Dutrow made his way to the main track during the renovation break Thursday in order to watch Casino Drive work under Edgar Prado, who will ride Casino Drive in the race.
Casino Drive was credited with a half-mile time of 55.80 seconds while working from the three-eighths pole to a furlong past the wire.
After dismounting, Prado relayed his opinion to Kazuo Fujisawa, the Japanese trainer of Casino Drive, through Nobutaka Tada, who speaks fluent English and has been overseeing the training of Casino Drive as the racing manager for owner Hidetoshi Yamamoto.
"He was looking at the footprints," Prado said, referring to portions of the track where other horses had trod. "He did everything himself. I didn't have to encourage him."
After sizing up the competition, Dutrow said, "We're looking better by the day."
"These horses just cannot run with Big Brown," Dutrow said. "We know we have the best horse in the race. No way he can beat Big Brown. Big Brown's gonna have to school him like everybody else."
There have been mixed reactions to Dutrow's swagger.
"That's just Dutrow being Dutrow," Prado said, smiling. "He's enjoying the moment, having lots of fun."
The mischievous Tada, who at Wednesday's post position draw mimicked Dutrow by calling an interviewer "Babe," said, "We have different ways of expressing confidence."
David Carroll, the trainer of Denis of Cork, was the exercise rider for Easy Goer when he denied Sunday Silence's Triple Crown bid in 1989.
"We wanted to beat each other, but at the end of the day, we shook hands," Carroll said. "What's going on now is way out of line."
"I know some people don't think well of me," Dutrow said.
He really doesn't care, though. Dutrow thinks he's got the horse, and that's all that matters.
"Big Brown made the first two look kind of easy," Dutrow said. "I can't imagine this turning out different."