Though this weekend will feature power-packed racing that should impact the upcoming Breeders' Cup World Championships, all eyes will be on Curlin as he looks to defend his title in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) and break Cigar's North American earnings record.
“To be compared to a Cigar is just a great honor for Curlin,” majority owner Jess Jackson said during a Sept. 23 media teleconference. “Cigar left an indelible memory because he raced. Beating his financial record is a very big part of Curlin’s legacy, but only because people in our society are more focused on dollars than they should be. The fact is Curlin, on his own merit, is a great horse.
“It really is not about the money. I truly believe he is a champion. He has already proven he is one of the best in the last half-century if not a century. That is just an owner’s selfish view of a horse he loves, but that is the way I feel.”
The biggest question surrounding Curlin is where he will conclude his 4-year-old season. Depending on the results of the Gold Cup, the horse’s overall health, and the new synthetic surface at Santa Anita Park, Jackson said the Smart Strike colt may run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), Clark Handicap (gr. II), or Japan Dirt Cup (Jpn-I).
“Those are the three, and we may be in two of them,” Jackson said. “I am not trying to avoid Big Brown. One race doesn’t determine a champion. Let’s get this race under our belt, and then we will make a decision.”
Beyond Curlin’s next start, Jackson continues to leave the door open for the Horse of the Year to return to the races as a 5-year-old. He also addressed the circus that has surrounded whether his colt will ever race against Big Brown, who is expected to compete in this year's Classic at Santa Anita.
“If other horses would continue to race longer, if Big Brown would run as a 4-year-old, I would be very tempted to run Curlin as a 5-year-old,” Jackson said. “In other words, other people should step up as well. I don’t want that to be taken as being critical of what the Big Brown camp has done. (Rick) Dutrow is a damn good trainer. He makes a lot of noise, but at the same time, he has proven to be a great trainer.”
Jackson is also focused on the idea of creating a league to encourage owners to race colts beyond their 3-year-old year.
"I am hoping several owners will join with me in starting an effort to race older horses, form a league, and maybe even have a commissioner to discipline those that create infractions,” he said. “Older horses should run longer. I am hoping we can create a league for 4 and 5 year olds, increase the purses, promote them, and get sponsors.”
In order to beat Cigar’s record, which stands at $9,999,815, Curlin will have to defeat a solid field of runners, and Jackson noted his respect for the other competitors in the race. “You always wonder about a horse like Mambo in Seattle, who obviously is improving considerably,” Jackson said. “I also think Ravel is a major factor in the race. Todd Pletcher (who trains Ravel) is always a factor.”
Pletcher also plans on starting A.P. Arrow, who is owned by the same connections as Cigar, but said that is not why the horse will be entered. He also acknowledged Curlin’s abilities.
“I would have trouble knocking Curlin’s record at all, ever,” Pletcher said. “I thought he has been extremely impressive in all of his starts this year. I think it would be foolish to be predicting he is not going to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup.”
Pletcher also took time to answer questions regarding the wisdom of holding the Breeders’ Cup on an untested synthetic surface, which is an area of contention with many owners and trainers.
“I think you could argue both sides of that,” he said. “I don’t have any question that it is a safe surface and it is properly installed. I think the real question is whether or not Breeders’ Cup races should be held on synthetic surfaces at all, and obviously the Breeders’ Cup committee feels it should.”
John Shirreffs, who sends Zenyatta out in the Lady’s Secret Stakes (gr. I) and Tiago in the Goodwood Stakes (gr. I), also fielded questions regarding the new surface at Santa Anita.
“The one thing that has turned out to be the same with all synthetic surfaces is you can’t judge them by (morning workouts),” he said.
The Polytrack surface at Turfway Park will also host serious racing this weekend, and the fact some horses prefer one surface to another is a key reason Stream Cat will partake in the Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. II), trainer Rusty Arnold said. Should he perform well there, his connections will turn their attention to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“Stream Cat has a very good record on all the artificial surfaces,” Arnold said. “It just seemed like the logical step. We feel that he is a little better on the artificial surface than on the grass. We want him to have a breakthrough race.”