Big Brown was made the 1-2 favorite in the field of seven 3-year-olds entered Thursday for Sunday's 11⁄8-mile Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
His chief competition could come from 4-1 second choice Cool Coal Man, trained by Nick Zito, who played the spoiler's role in the Belmont when his Da' Tara pulled an upset.
”Big Brown is the story and rightfully so, and we hope our horses come to play and see what happens,“ Zito said.
Zito will also send out Coal Play, with the rest of the field comprised of Alaazo, Atoned, Magical Forest and Nistle's Crunch.
For the most part, Rick Dutrow has kept a low profile since Big Brown's inexplicable last-place finish in the Belmont Stakes nearly two months ago.
The time has arrived for Big Brown's return and the trainer was chattering again this week. While exuding his usual confidence, Dutrow's tone was far from boastful.
After all, he still finds it hard to believe his Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner was completely off his game in the Belmont, where the big bay colt was uncomfortable at the start and later was pulled up around the far turn by jockey Kent Desormeaux, the Triple Crown quest over as a crowd of 94,476 looked on in stunned silence.
”From what happened in his last start, it's kind of hard to feel as confident as I was for the Derby and those other races,“ Dutrow said. ”But I feel as confident as I can be that he's going to run his race.“
Then again, without a definitive reason to pin on Big Brown's only loss, it's easy to see why Dutrow is anxious to see which Big Brown shows up in the Haskell.
”I'm still kind of concerned about what's going to happen Sunday because I know the horse went into the Belmont in very good condition, and whatever happened in that race I have no idea,“ Dutrow said. ”But if it happens again then I'm going to know something is wrong with him — he's just not going to run anymore, stuff like that, you know?“
There's an outside chance Big Brown could run next in the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 23, but the decision won't be made until after the Haskell. The main goal, of course, is the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Oct. 25.
Big Brown has been training in solitude at Aqueduct Racetrack.
Last Saturday, Big Brown put in his fourth timed workout since the Belmont, sizzling six furlongs in 1:10.96 under exercise rider Michelle Nevin. It was a workout that gave every indication Big Brown was back to the form that saw him win his first five races by a combined 39 lengths.
”He could be better than the Big Brown leading up to the Kentucky Derby,“ said Michael Iavarone, the co-president of IEAH Stables, Big Brown's majority owner. ”We are very excited to see him come into the race the right way. We could not be happier with the way he is doing. I think he is a horse that has captured the imagination of racing and to see him perform so poorly in the Belmont was so disappointing to the horse.“
Big Brown's work Saturday showed Dutrow all he needed to see.
”He looks like he's in amazing condition,“ the trainer said. ”He shining, he's happy. You know if he wasn't going into this race as good as he could go into a race, we would wait on the next spot. But he's on top of his game, he's doing great, he looks great. So, I have to say that everything is all good.“
Ferocious Fires wins at Saratoga
Ferocious Fires won the $82,900 John Morrissey Stakes at Saratoga Race Course by 4¼ lengths on Thursday.
Cornelio Velasquez rode the Rick Dutrow-trained 5-year-old horse who took the lead shortly after the break, repelled two challenges from long shot Endless Circle and was unchallenged in the stretch.