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Is this a super horse that comes from across the Pacific?

May 13, 2008 7:00 PM

Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein | A gift from Japan, to American racing.

Well, not exactly. A gift from Lexington, Kentucky, by way of Japan, a gift to American racing.

Come June, the name Casino Drive may echo from coast to coast. Casino Drive is a horse, a thoroughbred runner, and he could become the most famous racehorse in America if he continues on the spectacular path he has shown in his first two lifetime starts.

In Kyoto, Japan, he won his first start in late February by 11½ lengths, then did not race until an appearance at Belmont Park last Saturday in the $200,000 Peter Pan at a mile and an eighth. He destroyed the field, winning by 5¾ lengths, leaving veteran observers gasping at the ease and power of his victory.

The colt has all the credentials. He is by a good sire, Mineshaft, but far more importantly is out of a phenomenal mare, Better Than Honour, that has accomplished something never done before in the mile-and-a-half Belmont. She produced back-to-back winners, Casino Drive’s half-brother Jazil, the 2006 winner, and half-sister Rags to Riches, who upset Horse of the Year Curlin in last year’s Belmont. Better Than Honour is going for a three-peat, and could get it.

Whether she does or not, and whether or not Big Brown wins the Preakness this coming Saturday, the Belmont suddenly becomes the most exciting race of the early season. If Big Brown does win at Pimlico, the stage then is set for a match that could draw 80,000 or 90,000 to Belmont Park.

It also could help take the public’s mind off the death of Eight Belles, an accident that took on a life of its own when it became a crusade for every guy and jane with a laptop and outlet, and set off a shark-feeding frenzy with the blogging crowd.

I don’t plan to give that tragedy any more publicity than it already has received in what New York Post writer Ray Kerrison called "a high tech lynching."

I would rather speculate on what makes racing exciting and great: a charismatic horse. Far better yet, two of them.

Echoes of Affirmed and Alydar resound in this match-up, and no one can predict the outcome at this point.

If Big Brown is beaten in the Preakness, the spotlight then falls full focus on Casino Drive.

He has a lot going for him, besides his seemingly unlimited talent.

He is a chestnut, as was Secretariat, a flashy horse easy to spot.

He has a catchy name.

And he is a big winner, big enough to divert attention away from the disaster of the Kentucky Derby.

If he wins, it will not matter if racing does not have another Triple Crown winner. It will matter more that it has a new super horse, an American idol of racing.

He was bought as a yearling by agent Nobutaka Tada at the yearling sale at Keeneland in September of 2006, for $950,000, largely on the strength of his half-brother’s victory in that year’s Belmont.

The buyer was Hidetoshi Yamamoto, and if the name sounds familiar it should.

Isoroku Yamamoto was Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Fleet, the man who orchestrated the bombing of Pearl Harbor and could have changed the outcome of the war in the Pacific if American intelligence had not broken the Japanese code and knew of his plans in advance.

That same broken code led to Admiral Yamamoto’s death. His plans to visit the Solomon Islands were intercepted and American P-38s intercepted and shot down his bomber, sending him to death in the Guadalcanal jungle.

This Yamamoto’s plans are clear and explicit, and need no decoding. He has shipped his two-start colt nearly halfway around the world, fully mindful of the huge test confronting him: not only to run the mile and half against America’s best, but against a new and seemingly invincible American champion.

That invincibility could disappear this weekend, but if not, then an American racing classic becomes a super classic.

How things change in a matter of a few days, or even hours.

Before Saturday’s $200,000 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont, few racing fans had even heard of Casino Drive. In fact, patrons of Las Vegas racebooks were asking what price the bookmakers were hanging up on the possibility that Big Brown would win the Triple Crown.

But those who watched the Japanese-trained colt came away wondering what would happen should he hook up with the Kentucky Derby and Preakness favorite on the one-mile and one-half oval at Belmont Park. What a treat that will be for racing fans who have practically given up hope that after 30 years they would see another Triple Crown winner.

Casino Drive will enter the Belmont either as the favorite or second choice. Kent Desormeaux rode him in his American debut, but Desormeaux, enjoying a huge resurgence that is sending him into international prominence once again, also happens to be Big Brown’s jockey. You can’t very well desert an owner and horse who wins the Kentucky Derby for you, but if by any remote chance he does, go hock the jewels and take a ride on Casino Drive.