ELMONT, N.Y. — Hertz took a peek at Avis here at Belmont Park on Thursday, when Big Brown's managing partner, Michael Iavarone, got his first glimpse of Casino Drive.
”Beautiful,“ Iavarone said after parking his Mercedes 500 sedan in the road to peek over the fence beside the barn housing the Japanese-based Casino Drive.
How ”beautiful“ will translate for Casino Drive on the race course Saturday is part of the intrigue unfolding as Big Brown prepares to seek the Triple Crown in the $1 million Belmont Stakes.
He's one of many obstacles that could get in Big Brown's way — if it's possible to stop Big Brown.
Long before the world knew Big Brown, Casino Drive's connections were planning to make this leg of the Triple Crown a quest designed along their own lines: The colt's mother, Better Than Honour, produced the winners of the two pervious Belmont Stakes — Jazil in 2006 and Rags to Riches in 2007.
To thicken the intrigue, Casino Drive will have Edgar Prado as his jockey. Prado was the spoiler who stopped the Triple Crown quests of Smarty Jones in 2004 and War Emblem in 2002. Casino Drive made Prado's acquaintance Thursday when the jockey took him for a gallop around the Belmont course.
”He's the intrigue in the race,“ Iavarone said of Casino Drive. But like Big Brown's loquacious trainer, Rick Dutrow, Iavarone says intrigue merely spices up the race. It does not change the outcome, as far as they're concerned. They see no way Big Brown can get beat.
They're not even seeing Casino Drive finishing second to Big Brown. Dutrow's exacta: Big Brown and Denis of Cork. Same for Iavarone, who heads up IEAH Stables.
”Bet out,“ Dutrow advised — on Big Brown to win. ”I'm hoping Denis of Cork will finish second.“
Dutrow said it's prophetic that the last Belmont Stakes winner to break from the No. 1 position was Empire Maker in 2003 — and that Big Brown, who drew No. 1 for this Belmont, is residing as a guest in Empire Maker's former stall.
Dutrow pointed out Thursday that 23 Belmont Stakes winners broke from the No. 1 starting spot. That's almost twice the number of winners from any other post position.
But when someone pointed out to Dutrow that 18 of 30 odds-on favorites have lost the Belmont Stakes, Dutrow shot back, ”It ain't gonna happen this year, babe.“
Back at Casino Drive's barn, Nobutaka Tada, racing manager for owner Hidetoshi Yamamoto, acknowledged the trash talking coming from Big Brown's barn and said, ”It's nice to have confidence.“
Casino Drive might have confidence to equal Big Brown's because he, too, is undefeated, albeit in only two starts: one in Japan and one in the United States, where he won the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont. And with his breeding, people just assume he's a distance horse.
If Casino Drive can't stop Big Brown on Saturday, many say Denis of Cork can. Unraced since finishing third behind Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby, Denis of Cork is coming into the Belmont Stakes a fresh horse and one who has proved that, like Big Brown, he at least can go 11/4 miles.
Whether either can run another quarter-mile is another question. The only Belmont Stakes entrant who has raced 11/2 miles is Guadalcanal. And he's never even won a race. He's in here because a heart scan showed he possesses stamina. He obviously does have stamina because he got beat by only a nose in that 11/2-mile race, even if it was on turf.
”I hope he doesn't break his maiden on Saturday,“ quipped Dutrow.
Dutrow stands resolute in insisting no other horse can test his, even at the unknown distance of 11/2 miles. ”Those horses he's running against, what makes them so special,“ Dutrow asked, ”that they're going to get a mile and a half?“
Dutrow said Big Brown will get the 11/2 miles, judging from his other races. ”Desormeaux is sitting like a statue from the 1⁄8 pole to the wire,“ Dutrow said of those races, ”and you can't pull him up after the race. Kent has a hell of a time pulling him up after a race, so I can't imagine that this is going to get in our way.“
If you believe the talk coming from Big Brown's barn, nothing is going to get in this colt's way. Saturday will tell whether this proves out — or whether Big Brown is just one more horse to have won the Derby and Preakness, then failed to win the Triple Crown.