Prior to this year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), Larry Jones, trainer of eventual runner-up Hard Spun, said of the meteoric rise of the then undefeated Curlin, "Six months from now, we could be looking at Curlin as a super horse."
Well, it is now six months later, and Jones' words, unfortunately for him, have become prophetic. By crushing Hard Spun with an awesome display of power in the Oct. 27 Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I) at Monmouth Park, Curlin has now entered the realm of superstardom.
What the son of Smart Strike, out of the Deputy Minister mare Sherriff's Deputy, has accomplished since his career debut Feb. 3 is unprecedented.
As Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens said, "He's not one in a million to have done what he's done; he's one in a jillion."
But Curlin's victory could not be fully appreciated by the crowd of 41,781, who were more focused on the tragic scene that was playing out in front of them. Other than the victory celebration for Curlin following the Classic, there was no joy in Mudville. A short distance away from the winner's circle festivities, Ireland's George Washington was being euthanized after breaking down on a sloppy track that had been saturated by four days of rain.
As Curlin's trainer Steve Asmussen, jockey Robby Albarado, co-owners Jess Jackson, Satish Sanan, and George Bolton, and their friends and families were hailing racing's newest superstar, George Washington's trainer, Aidan O'Brien, and his family were departing through the tunnel. O'Brien, refusing or unable to speak to anyone, put his arm around his wife, Anne-Marie, who was in tears. It was a sad ending to what had been an exciting and formful day of racing, despite the track conditions and the precipitation that finally ended at about 3:30, giving way to glorious sunshine.George Washington's injury was diagnosed by Dr. C. Wayne McIlwraith as an open fracture of the cannon bone in the right front fetlock joint, as well as fractured sesamoids, an injury he called "hopeless as far as repair."
In addition to the loss of a brilliant and talented horse, the incident dampened what should have been the joyous coronation of a champion, unlike any seen in a long while.Not even longtime veterans of the sport could recall a horse accomplishing so much in such a short period of time. Unraced at 2, Curlin did not make his career debut until Feb. 3. In less than nine months he has won the grade I Breeders' Cup Classic, Preakness Stakes, and Jockey Club Gold Cup, grade II Arkansas Derby, and grade III Rebel Stakes. He also was second in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and third in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Haskell Invitational (gr. I).
"To accomplish what he's accomplished in the length of time that he has, to get to this level, he's different in many ways; he's an amazing animal," Asmussen said.In the Classic, Curlin powered his way to a 4-1/2-length victory over the indefatigable Hard Spun in track-record-equaling time of 2:00.59. The previous record of 2:00 2/5 was set by Carry Back in 1962. Although Monmouth no longer cards races at 10 furlongs, many great horses have competed at that distance over the years. Even more impressive than the final time was Curlin running each of his final two quarters in :24 1/5 over a track on which horses had been closing slowly all afternoon in two-turn races.
"What I like about him is that he's just learning to run right now," assistant trainer Scott Blasi said back at the barn as Curlin was being bathed under the cover of darkness. "He's really leveling off and finishing off his races. Even though he's just now figuring it out, he's already doing things we haven't seen a horse do in 30 years."
The Classic was unique in that it attracted five grade I winners from this year's Derby - Curlin, Derby winner Street Sense, Hard Spun, Any Given Saturday, and Tiago. This remarkable quintet would be battling each other with the 3-year-old championship on the line, and only the 4-year-old Lawyer Ron standing in their way for Horse of the Year honors.Street Sense and Hard Spun were the fan favorites, thanks in part to their convivial trainers Carl Nafzger and Jones, respectively. Curlin, through no fault of his own, has not been as warmly received due to the legal entanglements of several of his owners. As he did in the Preakness, Curlin wore the silks of Midnight Cry Stables, whose owners, Shirley Cunningham and William Gallion, are currently in prison awaiting trial while accused of bilking $64 million from their clients in the Fen-Phen diet drug settlement.
Most everyone is well aware by now that a majority interest in Curlin was purchased by Jackson's Stonestreet Stables, Sanan's Padua Stables, and Bolton through bloodstock agent John Moynihan following the colt's spectacular career debut for a price believed to be between $3.5 and $3.7 million, with Midnight Cry maintaining a minority interest.
But the story of Curlin began well before that. Purchased by trainer Kenny McPeek for $57,000 at the 2005 Keeneland September yearling sale, the colt was sent to Helen Pitts to train after McPeek temporarily retired from training to concentrate on bloodstock work.
Pitts and assistant Hanne Jorgensen worked long and hard on the colt through two cases of bucked shins and other minor ailments. On July 29, 2006, the Southern Legislative Conference convened at Churchill Downs, where the legislators were treated to a night at the races, which included three exhibition races. When Churchill Downs' senior vice president of racing, Donnie Richardson, asked Pitts to help out and put a couple of her 2-year-olds in the races, she chose Curlin, who wound up finishing third behind the Bernie Flint-trained Speedway, who had already broken his maiden by three lengths, but was still green and needed more experience.
"Curlin had worked a couple of half-miles, but he was just a big ol' 2-year-old who had never been asked to do anything at that point," said exercise rider Mick Jenner, who rode Curlin that night. "Everything he'd done was on the bit. The race was only a quarter of a mile and he was bucking and rearing, and I was hanging on for dear life. So I not only got Curlin beat, I got him well beat."
Flint, who had no idea he had defeated Curlin in that race, still marvels at what the colt has accomplished since then.
"He went from zip to winning the Breeders' Cup Classic and Horse of the Year," Flint said. "It's unbelievable. That's all I can say-unbelievable."
Pitts and Jorgensen (who is married to Jenner) continued to nurse Curlin through his ailments and finally got him ready for his debut at Gulfstream Park. Jorgensen, who also was Curlin's regular exercise rider, knew that he was something special and unlike any horse she'd ever been on, and wasn't surprised when he demolished his field by nearly 13 lengths.
Asmussen had shipped into Gulfstream from Fair Grounds to run Gunfight in the Swale Stakes (gr. II) and was stabled in Pitts' barn, so he was able to get a good close-up look at this magnificent chestnut. It was Jorgensen who had helped him by getting on Gunfight in the mornings. When Asmussen left, Curlin went with him. Jorgensen was devastated, and still is, watching her "baby" clinch Horse of the Year honors for someone else, while increasing his bankroll to more than $5.1 million.
"He was always a physically strong horse, but I admired how mentally strong he was," Jorgensen said. "It's bittersweet. You take care of them and cultivate them for almost a year and then someone with more money comes in and snatches them right out from under you."
Curlin quickly developed into a powerhouse for Asmussen and just kept getting better and better. He went into the Kentucky Derby with only three starts, but still managed to finish a solid third, despite encountering traffic problems. Then came his dramatic Preakness victory over Street Sense and his courageous head defeat in the Belmont Stakes at the hands of super filly Rags to Riches, who went into the race a much fresher horse. With Curlin having so little experience and foundation, everyone kept waiting for him to run into the proverbial brick wall after his grueling spring campaign, but he never did.
Finally, after the Belmont, he was given two months off, but returned with a dull third behind Any Given Saturday and Hard Spun in the Haskell. Did he simply crash after being on such an adrenaline high and then let down abruptly? Or with his humongous stride, did he simply not like the tight turns at Monmouth Park? Whatever the reason, Asmussen passed the Travers Stakes (gr. I), which was won by Street Sense, to point for the Classic. Street Sense's Travers victory placed him firmly atop the contenders list for championship honors. Curlin would need a huge comeback to take it away from him.
Curlin returned after another two-month layoff to gamely defeat Lawyer Ron in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, putting him in position to challenge Street Sense, who had been beaten by Hard Spun in the Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. II). But he would also have to contend with Any Given Saturday, who was riding a three-race winning streak, and had a decisive victory over him on the Monmouth Park surface.
The stage was set for one of the most highly anticipated Classics ever, with Street Sense and Curlin the main contenders for the Eclipse Award. But Hard Spun and Any Given Saturday were only one victory away from displacing them. Curlin was 1-1 against Street Sense, 2-2 against Hard Spun, and 1-1 against Any Given Saturday. But he did have a victory over the nation's leading older horse, Lawyer Ron, to his credit.
Street Sense was the first Classic horse to arrive at Monmouth, shipping in by van from Louisville Oct. 19, eight days before the Classic, with a scheduled work set for the following Tuesday.
"He's impatient," said Nafzger in explaining why he vanned the colt so early. "He wants off, and he wants off now. I wanted to see how he handled this track and if there's anything I needed to adjust. We got everything in this race. We got speed, we got tactical speed, and we got closers. And every horse in the race has one common denominator-class. So, that makes it really tough."
Curlin didn't arrive until the Tuesday before the race, just after Street Sense turned in a sharp five-furlong work in 1:01 1/5, galloping out seven furlongs in a sensational 1:25 3/5 and pulling up a mile in 1:38 3/5.
Curlin arrived with his two personal bodyguards who work for Jess Jackson and have been monitoring his every move since Saratoga.
"Our job is to make sure no one gets close to him," said Amy Kearns, who has a master's degree in criminal justice and spent a year on the streets of Indianapolis interviewing gang members and felons. She shares her duties at the barn with a retired police officer from Cincinnati.
"We write down everything that happens," added Kearns, who refers to herself as Curlin's chaperone. "Anytime someone gives him something or goes in his stall, whether it's the vet or Scott, we record it in his diary. We record everything-when he lays down, when he gets up, when he eats hay, everything, 24 hours a day. We have volumes, starting up in Saratoga. He doesn't like small animals; he gets agitated by them, so we have to watch for that as well. He's such a smart horse. He's unbelievable to be around."
That eventful Tuesday was the last time anyone at Monmouth would see the sun until Saturday afternoon, as a massive front moved up from the south bringing steady rains, heavy at times, and brisk winds. The weather bureau called for flood warnings on race day, as giant waves pounded the Jersey Shore for several days.
Despite the horrible conditions, the Breeders' Cup, which was a two-day event for the first time this year, with three additional races carded for Friday, went smoothly and according to form. In fact, it was the most formful Breeders' Cup ever.
All eight of Saturday's winners, and 10 of the 11 overall winners, had previously won a grade I race in the United States, with the exception of Juvenile Turf winner Nownownow, and that was because there are no grade I races for juveniles on the turf in the U.S. On only three previous occasions have there been as many as six Breeders' Cup winners who already had won a grade I race in the U.S.
A field of nine went to the post for the Classic, seven of whom were grade/group I winners, with the remaining two-Awesome Gem and Diamond Stripes-grade II winners and grade I-placed. European champion George Washington added a good deal of intrigue to the race, returning for a second try after a troubled sixth-place finish last year. The 2006 English Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-I) and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (Eng-I) winner had been retired to stud at the end of last year, but was put back in training after impregnating only five mares.
The Classic also would likely mark the farewell performance for Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Any Given Saturday, all of whom had been purchased by Darley earlier in the year. Of the three, only Any Given Saturday's status has not been announced.
For Street Sense's rider, Calvin Borel, this has been the end of a magical journey, which brought him an invitation to the White House and a meeting with Queen Elizabeth.
"This year has been a dream come true, and it's gonna be sad to see him go," Borel said. "But all things must come to an end. He's been every jock's dream, and I don't think he can be beat on Saturday."
At 7:15 on the morning of the race, Todd Pletcher, trainer of Lawyer Ron and Any Given Saturday, stood outside his barn hosing off his shoes, having just come from inspecting the track. What he saw was not encouraging.
"It's not good," Pletcher said. "Not good. It pulls your shoes off, and the scariest part is it's very inconsistent. That's what worries me. But they haven't brought the tractors out yet, so, we'll see."
A few barns away, Jones was contemplating how a victory by Hard Spun would be perceived. "If we do win, then everybody's gonna want to blow it off as him just doing well because of the slop," he said. "It's a no-win situation, but we're gonna enjoy it anyway. Our job is to get it done, and if it does play in our favor, then good."
The fans made Street Sense the 5-2 favorite, followed by Any Given Saturday and Lawyer Ron at 7-2, and Curlin a surprising 4-1.
In the paddock, Bob Baffert, who was still beaming over his two Breeders' Cup winners, Indian Blessing and Midnight Lute, called his wife, Jill, after looking over the field and gave her his assessment of the horses in one word: "Curlin."
At the start, Hard Spun, as expected, went to the front from post 8, but had to work a bit to get there, outrunning Lawyer Ron, who had broken from the rail. Meadowlands Cup (gr. II) winner Diamond Stripes was right up there, with Any Given Saturday in good position in fourth. George Washington tracked him in fifth, with Curlin directly outside of Street Sense, who found his usual position on the rail.
Down the backstretch after a quarter in :23.11 and a half in a quick :45.85, Hard Spun began to open up on the field, with Curlin and Street Sense still side by side, some 10 lengths off the pace. It had not been a good day for closers in two-turn races, and both classic winners had a lot of ground to make up on Hard Spun, who was winging it out there on an uncontested lead.
Approaching the far turn, Hard Spun led by three lengths, with Lawyer Ron and Any Given Saturday going nowhere. George Washington was retreating, and would ultimately be pulled up by jockey Mick Kinane just before the wire.
"He did well to stay up," Kinane said. "He was brave. He didn't go down, and by staying up he saved me."
Tiago, who was coming up to the race in great shape, was back in last and apparently not handling the footing at all. He managed to make slight progress late to finish fifth, 10 lengths ahead of Any Given Saturday and Lawyer Ron, neither of whom ever got hold of the track.
Around the turn, Curlin had a half-length advantage on Street Sense as the two began their moves together. As fast as Street Sense was coming along the inside, Curlin was always going better, reaching out with those massive strides of his. It was apparent as they closed in on Hard Spun at the quarter pole that Curlin was by far the stronger of the two and was moving so well he already had the race in the bag.
Turning for home, Curlin charged past Hard Spun, as Street Sense's move stalled abruptly. Curlin began drawing off under mild encouragement from Albarado. The race for first and second was over, and it was just a question of whether Street Sense could hang on for third. Awesome Gem, who had been back in eighth, came flying late and snatched the show spot in the final few jumps.
"After I looped Hard Spun, Curlin found something extra that we needed to push off and draw away from them," Albarado said. "Coming back, he wasn't stressed at all and was as calm as can be, just like the normal Curlin every day."
Borel offered no excuses for Street Sense. "He just got outrun," he said. "It's heartbreaking to go out like this, but he's one of a kind. He's the best horse in the world to me, and I've had a dream come true with him. He gave me everything he had, but he just couldn't go with Curlin. That was it."
Jones was happy with Hard Spun's performance, and with the remarkable toughness and durability the colt has shown all year, winning four graded stakes and finishing second in the Kentucky Derby, Breeders' Cup Classic, and Haskell, and third in the Preakness.
"It's sort of like kissing your mother, but we're happy," he said. "We're real proud of him. Once again, the 3-year-olds showed up. I watched these horses in the holding barn and Curlin looked the best."
It is worth noting that the only two horses to compete in all three Triple Crown races-Curlin and Hard Spun-went on to finish one-two in the Classic. That fact either dispels any myths about the Triple Crown being too demanding on horses or proves that Curlin and Hard Spun are rare individuals-throwbacks to a time when horses were tough and durable and thrived on racing.
As for Curlin's future, Bolton said, "I was so blown away. Why would we retire him? So I can go buy 10 more that can't run? I would love to run him in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) and come back and point for the Classic at Santa Anita."
Jackson, who owns the largest share in the colt, said the partners will get together and decide what to do.
"I'm on cloud nine, so I'm not sure I'm rational right now," he said. "With Robby on board and Steve training, I'm sure we can prove that he's one of the best in the last half-century. This is one of the best generations I've ever seen and I've been watching racing since 1939. As a breeder, I'd love to have the American breed move upward with the distance, durability, power, and speed that Curlin represents. But I'm a racing fan and a handicapper, and I'd love to see him come back and keep racing."
So ends the latest chapter in the amazing saga of Curlin. Bred in Kentucky by Fares Farms, he has earned his Horse of the Year title with two distinct campaigns. There was the spring campaign, in which he kept firing bullets race after race through the Triple Crown, despite having little foundation under him. And there was the summer and fall campaign, in which he had two eight-week layoffs and showed he's equally effective going into his races fresh.
He has won on the lead, come from one length back to win, three lengths back, five lengths back, and 10 and 13 lengths back. He equaled the track record in the Classic and equaled the stakes record in the Preakness, each time turning in blistering final fractions. He's won photo finishes, and he's routed his opposition by as many as 10 1/2 and 12 3/4 lengths.
Credit must be given to Asmussen, who has directed Curlin's campaign like a four-star general. "Steve made all the decisions regarding training and which race we go to," said Sanan, who also is part-owner of Any Given Saturday. "He's done a phenomenal job; no question about it."
Asmussen was equally as prophetic as Jones when he commented before the Kentucky Derby, "This horse has greatness in his future. You tend to want to mention him with horses whose names slide right off your tongue."
Now, six months later, Asmussen has changed his way of thinking. He no longer cares to mention Curlin in the same breath with anyone.
"You're looking to compare him with something else,"he said, "but there's just not another horse to compare him with."