NEW YORK - A feisty Big Brown was back in his barn after a final workout Tuesday for the Belmont Stakes, and Rick Dutrow Jr. wasted no time zeroing in on the crack in the colt's left front hoof.
"I didn't see any," the trainer said, promptly relaying the good news to hoof specialist Ian McKinlay by phone. "I said that he went good and I don't see any issue at all. I told him that everything was beautiful."
Big Brown ran five furlongs in 1:00.03 with Dutrow and co-owner Michael Iavarone looking on near the finish line, where they expect Big Brown to be proclaimed a Triple Crown champion on Saturday.
No such celebration has taken place at this track since 1978, when Affirmed dueled with Alydar and captured thoroughbred racing's highest honor.
"We're as happy as we can be," Dutrow said. "There's not any issues with our horse. He does whatever you would want him to do."
Like Dutrow, Iavarone was all smiles, and already looking beyond the Belmont. If the colt comes out of the race in good shape, he said Big Brown would run in the Travers at Saratoga in August and the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita in October.
"We'll turn him over at the end of the year" to Three Chimneys farm, he said.
That's where Big Brown will begin his breeding career as part of a $50 million deal Iavarone and the other owners agreed to before the Preakness.
Tuesday's workout was important in two ways: Big Brown did it without a patch on his hoof, and it was his first so-called breeze since two days before he won the Kentucky Derby on May 3.
The quarter crack that was discovered May 30 is being held together by stainless steel sutures until McKinlay patches it Friday. Dutrow originally planned to have him do it Monday, but decided to wait so Big Brown could work out without it and let any seepage in the area drain.
"We jumped over a big hurdle today," he said. "He's right on target, couldn't be any better."
Exercise rider Michelle Nevin detected a certain feistiness in Big Brown.
"He's been acting a little rough, wanting to do more, so I knew he was going to be ready for this," she said. "He was pretty strong, just because he was ready to go and do something. He's been kind of bored the last couple days with just a basic gallop."
He entered the 11/2-mile oval near the clubhouse turn and began jogging, then galloping. Nevin kept a strong hold on Big Brown as he made his way around the track with all eyes on him.
Even Funny Cide, whose 2003 Triple Crown bid was derailed on a sloppy Belmont track, stood near the rail watching Big Brown in between his stable pony duties.
Nevin said she was a "nervous wreck" until Big Brown came safely off the track. Back at the barn, she high-fived another exercise rider.
"You don't want him to go too fast and leave our race on the track," she said. "Today was a little bit more pressure because we want him to do everything right and in the right way and that's exactly what he did. He's eager and happy to do it."
Dutrow became slightly annoyed under persistent questioning about the hoof.
"You keep going over this. I don't understand it," he told reporters. "The horse is fine, the quarter crack has not been an issue for some time now. He breezed great, he's cooling out good, there's no blood, what else is there?"
With the workout over, Iavarone focused on the race. He said 800 friends and relatives will be on hand, with 500 in a tent and 300 scattered around the clubhouse, grandstand and owner's box.
He's been advised there's a 50-person limit in the winner's circle.
"We'll have to draw a lottery," he said.
Post positions will be drawn Wednesday, but Dutrow dismissed that as a mere technicality.
"I would like to draw outside, but the post position is not going to get him beat," he said. "He'll adapt to anything, pace is not an issue for him."
If the other horses don't go to the lead, Big Brown will, he said. "If they go, he'll sit."
Big Brown has a light schedule the rest of the week. With rain in Wednesday's forecast, he will walk around the barn. He'll jog Thursday and gallop Friday, when McKinlay is supposed to glue the acrylic patch on the hoof.
It appears that eight rivals will take on Big Brown, with Japanese-bred Casino Drive the only one besides the Derby/Preakness winner likely to have single-digit odds.
Casino Drive is scheduled to work out Wednesday, the same day Anak Nakal, Da'Tara, Denis of Cork and Macho Again are expected at Belmont. Icabad Crane, Tale of Ekati and Ready's Echo are already on the grounds.
The way Dutrow talks, Big Brown might as well be running solo.
"This horse has got good karma," he said. "No matter what you throw at him, he's going to be ready."