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 51â "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 13â "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 11â "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 43â "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.