Steve Haskin's Belmont Analysis: Let's Not Forget Curlin

Steve Haskin's Belmont Analysis: Let's Not Forget Curlin
Photo: Barbara D. Livingston
Let's not forget Curlin.
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All the superlatives and accolades have been written. The 139th Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and the performance of Rags to Riches will forever be a part of Triple Crown lore, and will go down as one of the sport’s greatest moments. But it was not all about one horse. There is another who deserves near-equal billing for his remarkable accomplishments.

Whether in battle or sports, the victors are measured by the strength of their opponent. Rags to Riches not only will be remembered for her feat of becoming the first filly to win the Belmont in 102 years, but for whom she defeated and how. But it would be a gross injustice to Curlin to regard him as merely a measuring stick. Just a head away from being acclaimed a superstar himself, he completed perhaps the most remarkable start to a career by any horse in history.

No horse has ever been asked to do what Curlin has in the first four months of his racing life. From his maiden race on Feb. 3, right through the Rebel Stakes (gr. III), Arkansas Derby (gr. II), Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), and Preakness (gr. I), Curlin never hit the proverbial brick wall he was supposed to. In his first four starts, he never even regressed, despite running four fast and remarkably consistent speed figures (he ran a “zero” each time on Thoro-Graph, give or take a quarter of point). That’s just not supposed to happen. Although his connections and those who bet him down to near-favorite in the Derby were disappointed with this third-place finish, most felt he ran a sensational race to even get third, considering his inexperience and traffic-congested trip.

He then somehow managed to make a huge leap forward in the Preakness (earning a spectacular “negative 3” on Thoro-Graph), while turning in what most everyone considered a freakish performance to defeat Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense. Horses just don’t win the way he did. Then, coming back in only three weeks off his monster  speed figures (on both Thoro-Graph and Ragozin), a gut-wrenching effort, and having to go a mile and a half in the Belmont, Curlin did back back up, but only to the “zero” (on Thoro-Graph) he had been running all spring. He again ran his heart out, giving Rags to Riches five pounds, while finishing 5 1/2 lengths ahead of third-place finisher Tiago.

During most of the Belmont, he was stuck in traffic down on the inside, and several times he lost a bit of ground, having nowhere to run. When Robby Albarado finally found an opening and pulled the trigger, the response was brilliant, as was coming home the last half in :47 4/5. And this was three weeks after an intensely grueling effort in the Preakness. You just can't ask more of a horse.

After the Belmont, his trainer, Steve Asmussen, called him a throw-back, and there is no more apt description of this remarkable colt. At a time when Thoroughbreds are handled like finely cut crystal, how special to have one come along that you can bounce on the ground and throw against a wall and it doesn’t even make a dent. You can even run him head-on into that aforementioned brick wall and he runs right through it.

Jerry Brown, founder of Thoro-Graph said he is amazed at what Curlin has accomplished. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “Usually, when horses come out running that fast they don’t hold on for long. They’re usually shot. A few have come out with big numbers, but they almost always go wrong by the third or fourth race. Frankly, having had those three serious efforts coming into the Triple Crown, and then the three big efforts in five weeks, it’s astounding that he came out of this sound. To repeat, it’s not just amazing that he ran a big number again in the Belmont, but that he’s still walking around. The fact that he survived this and will get some kind of a break is a huge plus for later races like the Travers (gr. I).”

Rags to Riches no doubt was the queen of Belmont on June 9, and ruler of all Turfdom, but for the entire Triple Crown, and you can even add the Derby trail, Curlin reigned supreme for the brilliance, courage, toughness, and consistency he displayed. And that is not taking anything away from Street Sense, who, himself, was only a head away from becoming a household name in the three weeks leading up to the Belmont. But Curlin ran in all three Triple Crown races, with absolutely no 2-year-old foundation to lean back on. What the future holds for him no one knows, but once thing is for sure: when they made this colt they threw away the book.

UNSUNG HEROES

There was plenty of excitement at Belmont before the big race. How can you not get excited about Manhattan Handicap (gr. I) winner Better Talk Now, who, at the age of 8, was winning his fifth grade I stakes to go along with his four other stakes victories. And to win it in such dramatic fashion made it all the more special. It seems a while ago that the son of Talkin Man upset the John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. I) at Lone Star Park. He then finished a close second in the BC Turf two years later in 2006 at a time everyone thought he was washed up.

His other grade I scores have come in the United Nations Handicap, Man o’ War, and Sword Dancer. What a treat it would be to see him hook up one day with California’s 9-year-old warrior, The Tin Man. And let’s not forget, we have Perfect Drift, who will be pointing for his unprecedented sixth consecutive appearance in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I).

Talk about tough horses, how about Woody Stephens Breeders’ Cup (gr. II) winner Teuflesberg, and the great training job by Jamie Sanders to keep the son of Johannesburg running so well and looking so good after a 17-race career, which has seen him race at least once in 13 of the 14 months since his career debut in April of last year. He not only still is in great physical condition, he rebounded off a 17th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby to win the seven-furlong Woody Stephens in 1:21 2/5.

And we also saw the most improved horse in training in Papi Chullo, who ran off and hid from his opponents in the 1 1/8-mile Birdstone Stakes, winning by five lengths in 1:47 1/5. His turnaround since being purchased and turned over to Gary Contessa has been dramatic to say the least.

We also saw the hard-knocking My Typhoon upset 3-5 Wait a While for a well-deserved victory in the Just a Game Stakes (gr. IIT). And, finally, there was Cotton Blossom, who has been overshadowed by stablemate Rags to Riches, as well as Octave, having the spotlight to herself by winning the grade I Acorn Stakes, defeating the 3-5 Dream Rush in 1:34 3/5 for the mile.

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