BALTIMORE Not once but twice, jockey Kent Desormeaux sneaked a peek to see if anyone was gaining on Big Brown.
"I looked between my legs, under my arms, and they were eight (lengths) behind me," Desormeaux said. "I stopped pushing. I said, 'That's enough."'
His big bay colt ran away with the Preakness on Saturday and now is pointed squarely down the path toward the Triple Crown.
The 3-year-old with the perfect record heads for the Belmont Stakes in three weeks as the fourth horse this decade to try for the triple, a sweep last accomplished by Affirmed in 1978. The last to try was Smarty Jones in 2004.
"Wow is all I can say," Steve Cauthen, who rode Affirmed, said by telephone from Kentucky. "He looks pretty special. It was like a cakewalk for him. The important thing to me is he keeps passing all the tests."
Trainer Rick Dutrow Jr., who called his shot at both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, sounded nearly as confident after Big Brown came back full of run after putting away the field of 11 with ease.
"I know we have horse left. There is no question," Dutrow said.
"He's just shown up every step, every way," he added. "I just can't imagine him not showing up for the Belmont."
As he did two weeks ago in a Kentucky Derby marred by the breakdown of Eight Belles, the colt named for UPS delivered another stunning win, this time by 5 1/4 lengths. Macho Again was second and Icabad Crane was third.
"We just got beat by a monster," said Julien Leparoux, who was aboard Macho Again.
Big Brown slipped a bit while breaking from the middle of an undistinguished pack and Desormeaux took him off the pace in front of 112,222 fans.
"He's so strong, he powered out with his back legs, and they just slipped and he was standing out in the same spot," Desormeaux said. "It actually was his second push that let him out of the gate."
Big Brown was fourth the first time past the grandstand behind pacesetter Gayego. He moved up to third on the first turn, where he stayed all the way down the backstretch.
"My whole job in that first half-mile was to keep his face clean," Desormeaux said. "There's not a grain of sand on most of his body."
The decisive moment came just before the final turn, when Desormeaux angled Big Brown out three-wide for clear running room. As he hit the top of the stretch, Desormeaux simply crossed the reins to let Big Brown know it was time to take off.
He didn't even need the whip, which he initially left behind in the jockeys' room. He could have saved himself the trip back to get it. His horse covered 1 3/16 miles in 1:54.80.
"This is the best horse I've ever ridden," Desormeaux said.
That's saying something.
In 1998, the jockey rode Real Quiet to wins in the Derby and Preakness only to be denied Triple Crown immortality when Victory Gallop stuck his nose in front at the wire in the Belmont. The final jewel is also the longest of the three races, a grueling 1 1/2 miles that proved the undoing of War Emblem in 2002, Funny Cide in 2003 and Smarty Jones the next year.
"We should have the horse to get the job done," Dutrow said.
Big Brown went off as a shorter-priced favorite than Secretariat in 1973, who went on to win the Triple Crown, capped by a stunning 31-length victory in the Belmont.
"It looks like Big Brown might win the Belmont farther than Secretariat," said Paddy Gallagher, who trained 10th-place finisher Yankee Bravo.
Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner, said she plans to be on hand for the history making try on June 7.
"I don't know whether Secretariat can stay with him or not," she said. "I won't speculate how that would come out, because we haven't seen him at that long a distance. But you have that big sweeping race track. I think he's going to do just fine."
Big Brown tied for the fourth-lowest payoff in Preakness history with Native Dancer in 1953. Sent off at 1-5 odds, he paid $2.40, $2.60 and $2.40. Macho Again returned $17.20 and $10.40, while Icabad Crane paid $5.60.
Racecar Rhapsody was fourth, followed by Stevil, Kentucky Bear, Hey Byrn, Giant Moon, Tres Borrachos, Yankee Bravo, Gayego and Riley Tucker.
In the Derby, Big Brown started on the far outside of 19 horses and used an explosive finishing kick to win by 4 3/4 lengths, the tightest margin in his 5-0 career. He's won those races by a combined 39 lengths.
The muscular colt joined Majestic Prince (1969), Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew (1977) and Smarty Jones (2004) as undefeated Derby and Preakness winners.
The victory put the sport's focus back on racing after two weeks of frenzied debate about safety and breeding following Eight Belles' catastrophic breakdown. His dominating performance came in front of a crowd that surely breathed easier after all 12 runners returned safely. On the same track just two years ago, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke down early in the race.
The Preakness win also means Big Brown's connections Dutrow, Desormeaux and principal owners Michael Iavarone and Richard Schiavo who once worked on Wall Street are headed back to their New York base with a horse that could make history.
It was an especially meaningful trip to the winner's circle, since Dutrow had accompanied his late father, respected trainer Richard Sr., on past Preakness days before the two fell out over the younger Dutrow's drug use and blown chances. In the past, his training license was revoked for personal drug use and he was suspended for doping horses.
The Preakness was also a homecoming for Desormeaux, the Cajun jockey who launched his career in Maryland in 1987. Cheering him on were his wife, Sonia, and two sons, including 9-year-old Jacob. the boy was born with Usher syndrome, a genetic disorder that stole his hearing at birth and is slowly robbing him of his sight.
In the winner's circle, Jacob said to his mother, "I wish Daddy would buy Big Brown. Mom, can we buy Big Brown?"
Big Brown earned $600,000 for the win and boosted his earnings to $2,714,500 for Iavarone and Schiavo, co-owners of IEAH Stables, and Paul Pompa Jr. Pompa named Big Brown in honor of UPS, a major client of his Brooklyn trucking business.
The festive mood at Pimlico after the race was in sharp contrast to the scene at Churchill Downs two weeks ago. Eight Belles, the filly who took on 19 colts and finished second, broke both front ankles while galloping out and had to be euthanized on the track, the first time that has happened in the Derby.
It was the second time a horse had broken down in the past five Triple Crown races. Barbaro shattered his right rear leg shortly after the start of the 2006 Preakness.
Many in the grandstand cried that day at the sight of the Derby winner taken away in an ambulance. Barbaro was euthanized eight months later because of laminitis, an often fatal hoof disease.
There was no sadness Saturday, only giddy anticipation that racing might see a Triple Crown winner at long last.