(Originally from the June 15, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse)
by John P. Sparkman
In the 2007 Belmont Stakes (gr. I), Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Curlin battled the entire length of the Belmont Park homestretch but could never get his head in front of the filly Rags to Riches. That was one of only five races Curlin lost in his 16-race career that earned him consecutive Horse of the Year titles in 2007-08.
Curlin has not made the fastest start at stud with his first crop of 3-year-olds, but the victory of Palace Malice in the 145th Belmont Stakes June 8 gave him a first-crop classic winner. Palace Malice is the third and easily best stakes winner to date among the 104 foals in Curlin’s first crop.
Bred by Issam Fares’ Fares Farm, Curlin is one of 93 stakes winners and 12 champions by Smart Strike, a classy but unsound half brother to champion and Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I) winner Dance Smartly, by leading sire Mr. Prospector. Curlin’s two Horse of the Year seasons, combined with a 2007 turf championship by Smart Strike’s son English Channel and graded/group victories by his offspring Fabulous Strike, Strike Softly, Communique, Tungsten Strike, Pleasant Strike, Super Freaky, Bel Air Beauty, Strike a Deal, and Square Eddie made Smart Strike the leading sire in 2007 and 2008.
Curlin sold for only $57,000 at the 2005 Keeneland September yearling sale to trainer Ken McPeek, partly because of a troublesome spot on an ankle X-ray. Unraced at 2, he created a sensation with a hugely impressive 123⁄4-length win in his debut at Gulfstream Park Feb. 3, 2007, for the Midnight Cry Stable of William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham. Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables, Satish Sanan’s Padua Stables, and George Bolton bought a controlling interest in Curlin after that maiden win and transferred him from trainer Helen Pitts to trainer Steve Asmussen.
Curlin showed his maiden win was no fluke with an easy 51⁄4-length win in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III) in his second start and followed up with an overwhelming 101⁄2-length romp over an admittedly substandard field in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II). Famously, no horse has won the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) without at least one start at 2 for more than a century, and, talented as he obviously was, Curlin could not pull it off either, though he ran a terrific race considering his lack of experience. Far back and caught in traffic early as Hard Spun set a strong pace, Curlin took the outside route around the final turn as Street Sense skimmed the rail under Calvin Borel. Curlin’s rally flattened out in the stretch, and he finished third, beaten eight lengths by Street Sense and 53⁄4 lengths by Hard Spun.
That experience served him well two weeks later in the Preakness. Well-placed early, Curlin looked beaten again when Street Sense streaked by on his inside at the head of the Pimlico homestretch, but he responded to jockey Robby Albarado’s whip with the utmost determination and rallied inexorably in the final furlong to beat his rival by a head.
Curlin ran disappointingly in the Haskell Invitational Stakes (gr. I) at Monmouth Park, beaten 41⁄2 lengths by Any Given Saturday, with Hard Spun second, but he returned to his best in the Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes (gr. I), beating eventual champion older male Lawyer Ron by a neck.
The Monmouth track was a sloppy mess for the 2007 Breeders’ Cup meeting, but Curlin reveled in the conditions, powering past pacesetter Hard Spun to win the Classic (gr. I) by 41⁄2 lengths, with Awesome Gem third and Street Sense fourth.
That secured Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male honors for Curlin, and his connections set their sights on the world’s richest race, the Emirates Airline Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) the following March. Curlin won his prep race at Nad Al Sheba and then totally dominated the World Cup field winning easily by 73⁄4 lengths over Asiatic Boy.
The Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs almost three months later was Curlin’s fifth straight victory, but Jackson and partners then decided to try their champion on grass with an eye toward Europe’s greatest race the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I). Curlin did not run badly in the Man o’ War Stakes (gr. IT), but he did not win, making late progress to finish two lengths behind Red Rocks , who had won the 2006 John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT).
A return to dirt produced routine victories in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) and Jockey Club Gold Cup, but frankly those relatively narrow wins over moderate fields lacked the sparkle Curlin had shown during his five-race win streak. Though he started as the 9-10 favorite for a second consecutive Breeders’ Cup Classic, his connections did not seem to have a lot of confidence that he would handle the synthetic surface at Santa Anita Park. Despite those doubts, though, Curlin made the lead after a mile in 1:35.48, but did not finish with his usual verve, ending up fourth, beaten 23⁄4 lengths by Raven's Pass.
Whatever his limitations as to surface might have been, Curlin retired to Lane’s End in 2009 as a dual Horse of the Year with record earnings for an American-trained runner of $10,501,800. A big, powerful, rather raw-boned horse, Curlin might not be the most elegant animal, but he has a magnificent shoulder and mostly correct forelimbs, and, unlike so many other modern Thoroughbreds, retired sound.
His first crop of yearlings was reasonably well received, averaging $136,780, topped by a $700,000 filly, but it was not too surprising nor disappointing that no juvenile stakes winners appeared when his first crop hit the track last year. Regional stakes winners Countess Curlin (out of Profit Column, by Private Account) and Stopshoppingdebbie (Taste the Passion, by Wild Again) opened Curlin’s black-type account this year, but it was obvious Palace Malice was the best of his first crop after his promising second in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I).
Bred in Kentucky by William S. Farish of Lane’s End, Palace Malice sold for only $25,000 at the 2011 Keeneland September sale to Colin Brennan, as agent for the pinhooking partnership run by his brother Niall. Niall Brennan consigned the colt to the 2012 Keeneland April sale of 2-year-olds in training, where the venerable horseman Cot Campbell paid $200,000 for him on behalf of his Dogwood Stable syndicate. Palace Malice is the third foal, third winner, and first stakes winner out of the Royal Anthem mare Palace Rumor, winner of the 2006 Audubon Oaks at Ellis Park. Bred in Kentucky by Darrell and Lindy Brown’s Stonereath Farms, Palace Rumor was one of only eight stakes winners sired by Royal Anthem, a brilliant, front-running son of the great sire Theatrical who won top-level turf races in England, Canada, and the United States. Royal Anthem, though, sired only one son of comparable ability, the multiple grade I-winning gelding Presious Passion, who exhibited similar front-running proclivities. Palace Malice is only the second stakes winner produced by a daughter of Royal Anthem.
Listed as sold for a mere $8,000 as a weanling at the 2003 Keeneland November breeding stock sale and resold for $5,000 at the 2004 Keeneland September sale, Palace Rumor belied those derisory evaluations by winning five of 16 starts and earning $111,833 for owners Corbet Bryant Jr. and Tim Gavin. The partners profited further by selling Palace Rumor for $140,000 (in foal to Tiznow ) to Farish at the 2008 Keeneland January mixed sale. Palace Rumor, in foal to Curlin, failed to reach her reserve on her fourth trip through Keeneland’s auction ring at the 2009 November sale at a hammer price of $190,000. Two years later, however, Off the Hook paid only $20,000 for the future dam of a Belmont winner, covered by Mineshaft . Palace Rumor produced a 2011 filly by City Zip but failed to produce a foal by Mineshaft in 2012. She had a 2013 colt by Pomeroy March 30.
In the years since Palace Rumor sold for such low prices as a foal and yearling, her dam, winner Whisperifyoudare, by Red Ransom, has produced multiple Iowa-bred stakes winners Maya's Storm, by Stormy Atlantic , and Jumpifyoudare, by Jump Start . Whisperifyoudare’s half sister Sweet Trip, by Carson City, has also added grade I winner and $1.5 million earner Rail Trip, by Jump Start, to an increasingly heavy pedigree page.
Palace Malice’s third dam Stellar Affair, by Skywalker, won the listed Matching Stakes at Del Mar, but there is really nothing in the first six or seven generations of the female line to make one think that a classic winner might pop up at any time. Palace Malice’s 12th dam Rose Marjorie, by Rosebery, was imported in 1902 by Sen. Johnson N. Camden Jr. carrying his 11th dam Sweet Marjoram, by Dinna Forget. Sweet Marjoram was second dam of Latonia Derby and Fairmount Derby winner Gallant Knight, by Bright Knight, who ran second to Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in the 1930 Kentucky Derby. The only other horse with anything close to classic form along this female line, though, is 1956 Travers Stakes winner Oh Johnny, by Johns Joy, a son of Palace Malice’s eighth dam Saracen Flirt, by Pilate.
Compared to those of the majority of his contemporaries, Palace Malice’s pedigree is an outcross with an inbreeding coefficient of only 0.59%, below the currently rising average of the breed, through the first six generations. His closest duplication is Northern Dancer 5x5, which is practically part of the definition of a Thoroughbred these days, with additional duplications of the common inbreeding targets Nashua, Turn-to, and Nearctic and of the more exotic Battle Joined within the first six generations.
Palace Malice is the 16th Belmont Stakes winner and 31st American classic winner from the male line of Mr. Prospector. Although Mr. Prospector never won beyond a mile and set track records at six furlongs, his male-line descendants have won four of the last five Belmonts and 14 of the last 19 since Thunder Gulch’s victory in 1995.