Casino Drive Presents Belmont Handicapping Challenges
by Trevor Whenham - 05/21/2008
Casino Drive is a big story heading into the Belmont Stakes, and he would be an even bigger story if Big Brown weren't such a freak. Casino Drive is also perhaps the biggest enigma and handicapping challenge to ever hit the Triple Crown trail.
The horse was bought as a yearling at the 2006 Keeneland September sale for $950,000 by Japanese businessman Hidetoshi Yamamoto. He was sent to Japan soon after, and learned the racing game there. Similar to Curlin last year, the horse didn't start his running career until well past his third birthday. He broke his maiden in February, and he did it in grand style - a win by more than 11 lengths in Kyoto (just in case you didn't make the connection, Big Brown also broke his maiden by more than 11 lengths in his first start). He would have run again in Japan, but an equine influenza outbreak scuttled those plans.
Based on that success, the horse was shipped back to his native U.S. to prepare for the Belmont. After a short acclimatization period he was sent out in the Peter Pan Stakes so that his connections could see what they had. They had a whole lot as it turned out. He won that race, a common prep for the Belmont for horses who skip the first two Triple Crown races, by almost six lengths. More significant than the win was the ease with which he did it - he pulled away in the stretch and won with impressive authority. With that he was set and all he had to do was wait for the Belmont.
So, why was a horse that had only run once in Japan pointed directly at the Belmont? It doesn't make much sense until you look at his pedigree. His dam is the great Better Than Honour. On the track she was decent, but not overwhelming - she had just one graded stakes win. As a broodmare, though, she is as good as it gets. Her foal the year before Casino Drive was Rags to Riches, the outstanding filly who won the Belmont last year in the incredible stretch duel with Curlin. The year before, her foal was Jazil, the winner of the 2006 Belmont. That means that Casino Drive is a half-brother to the last two winners of his next race. Actually, he's even closer to Rags to Riches - her sire is A.P. Indy, who is also the sire of Casino Drive's sire, Mineshaft. A.P. Indy won the Belmont himself in 1992. Casino Drive has proven little on the track given how lightly raced he is, but his blood is as close to perfection for this task as it can be.
Casino Drive's connections raise many more questions than his breeding. His trainer, Kazuo Fujisawa, has been the top trainer in Japan each of the last two years, but he is very unfamiliar with North American racing. He ran Taiki Blizzard, the first Japanese bred horse in the Breeders' Cup, in the Classic in 1996 and 1997 but was 13th and 6th in those efforts. Since then he has rarely ventured over here in any capacity. Though the Peter Pan win was impressive, we still can't really know if Fujisawa has the game to prepare a horse to face an American monster like Big Brown. The jockey questions are even greater. Kent Desormeaux rode Casino Drive in the Peter Pan, but he'll obviously stick with Big Brown in the Belmont. That means that Casino Drive needs a new rider. The likely course of action is a return to the past. Yutaka Take rode the horse in his debut, and he is likely to come over from Japan to ride him in the Belmont. Again, inexperience in the American game is the biggest question that move would open up.
Many people have been concerned about Big Brown's unprecedented lack of experience, so those same people have to be downright stunned by Casino Drive. Only two horses - Algerine in 1876 and Prince Eugene in 1913 - have ever won the Belmont in just their third race. A lot has changed in horse racing since then. Though he is bred for it, we have no way of knowing how he will handle the grueling distance, and he has never experienced a crowd anything like what will gather to see Big Brown try to capture history. He's never seen any kind of trouble at all, and he's never faced a horse that could even remotely challenge him. The only way Casino Drive could overcome all of those impediments is if he was truly a freak horse, and we have no way yet of knowing if he is.
This all makes this horse very hard to handicap. We know what we are probably going to get from Big Brown - a well-run, safe race in which he will patiently find his best spot and exploit it. We don't know how Casino Drive will react to that, or if he's good enough to do anything about it when Big Brown does make his move. In a normal situation that would mean that Casino Drive would probably be a pretty significant underlay as the public gives him more attention than his record warrants. This Belmont is not a normal situation, though, and public money will be pouring onto Big Brown and making the potential Triple Crown winner a very low priced favorite. That could mean that Casino Drive could have a price that might even reflect a bit of value.
I certainly won't be betting on this horse - I would never bet against a potential Triple Crown winner. I am very intrigued to see if he is the real deal, though. If he does well here, the plan is to ship him back to Japan to avoid problems with their quarantine rules and then point him towards the Breeders' Cup Classic in the fall. That could be a great race, too, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.