Casino Drive was scratched from the Belmont Stakes hours before the final leg of the Triple Crown on Saturday morning due to a bruised left hind hoof, improving Big Brown's chances for a third victory.
Racing manager Nobutaka Tada said Casino Drive, the early second choice behind favorite Big Brown, was fine during a three-furlong jog early Saturday, but he appeared to be favoring the hoof while receiving a bath following the workout.
Tada said the decision to scratch the Peter Pan Stakes winner was a precautionary measure. He classified the injury as minor but didn't want to take any chances during the grueling 1 1/2-mile race.
The horse will be shipped back to Japan on Tuesday but could return later this year to run in the Breeders' Cup.
For Big Brown, however, it was time for a big date with history. All the obstacles in the colt's spectacular bid for the first Triple Crown in 30 years are fading faster than the pack in his Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes victories.
Big Brown's quarter crack is patched and the sturdy hoof that helped him stampede to an undefeated record is as strong as ever. Big Brown's biggest challenger is injured with a suspect hind hoof, leaving mostly longshots in a lackluster field.
Up ahead, the chance to knock off Affirmed from his spot as the sport's last Triple Crown winner.
Nothing has changed trainer Rick Dutrow Jr.'s mind that the strapping bay colt will celebrate in the winner's circle at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday and win the first Triple Crown in 30 years.
"He's just the coolest horse that ever lived," Dutrow said.
It's been 30 years since Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become horse racing's 11th Triple Crown winner. The drought has left the sport starved to anoint a savior. Three times this decade a horse won the first two legs of the series only to get tripped up on Belmont's grueling 1 1/2-mile track.
Triple Crown Brown has a nice ring to it and the nickname could be his by nightfall.
"I just kind of daydream about being in these situations," jockey Kent Desormeaux said. "I dream about how I would react, what I should do."
Desormeaux is trying to make amends for blowing his shot a decade ago at making Triple Crown history. He led Real Quiet to wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, then the horse slowed down the stretch in the Belmont and lost by a nose to Victory Gallop.
Desormeaux still regrets the way he asked Real Quiet for an explosive early run.
"I think now I would do it differently," he said. "I know I won't make the same mistakes."
Weird things happen all the time in races. Horses stumble or get distracted, a jockey moves too soon, or doesn't leave enough oomph in the horse for the stretch run which can screw up even the best plan.
Big Brown is seeking to join Seattle Slew (9-0 in 1977) as the only undefeated Triple Crown winners. He's won all five of his races by a combined 39 lengths.
Big Brown was led to his bath mat Friday under the hold of exercise rider Michelle Nevin. He briefly turned his head toward the popping cameras and seemed to enjoy all the fuss.
But he got some privacy when he needed patch-up work.
Big Brown's barn was barricaded to keep gawkers away and the patch was glued in private. Ian McKinlay has been Big Brown's MVP — that would be Most Valuable Patcher. McKinlay removed the stainless steel sutures holding the crack together, cleaned the area, redrilled holes and put in new sutures. Then he covered it all up with an acrylic adhesive — the same kind used for the $550 glue-on shoes Big Brown wears on his front feet — that set in five minutes. The entire process took about 30 minutes.
"If that patch comes off, I might as well quit," McKinlay said.
Dutrow is undefeated, too, when it comes to perfectly timed quips. He's amused the masses with his brazen predictions, his potshots at the competition, and the way he peppers his answers to female reporters with an occasional "babe." Even other trainers get a kick out of Dutrow's candid answers.
"It's been nothing but thrilling," Dutrow said. "Maybe it doesn't show, but really, I'm having a ball."
Dutrow will not let Big Brown hit the track for a short run through the stretch early Saturday like he did the morning of the Preakness.
The first time Big Brown takes the long walk toward the track, he'll be led to the starting gate. Only a few minutes later, the sport will either have its savior — or just another dream that ended too soon.
"I'm Peter Pan flying off to the clouds," Desormeaux said. "That's how the dream ends."