Haskin's Cup Countdown: Classic Curlin
Photo: Coglianese Photos
After his win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), Curlin is being pointed to the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I).
Order This Photo

Talk about a hair-trigger decision. Following Curlin’s victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), majority owner Jess Jackson said over he phone that the colt likely would ship to Santa Anita “in about a week” to test out the Pro-Ride surface. The next morning, Curlin   was on a plane to California.

Although Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen said the horse was heading there only to work over the track, after which a decision will be made whether or not he runs in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), it seems inconceivable that Curlin will not run. Does anyone really think he’s going to work so poorly over the surface that it would force his return east? Curlin has proven that he’ll run on anything, and it is highly unlikely that a workout is going to make Asmussen come to the conclusion he doesn’t like Pro-Ride.

Curlin has run well over eight different fast dirt tracks, including Nad al Sheba; two sloppy tracks; and a firm turf course, and has worked well over Keeneland’s Polytrack. Unless he flounders around there in 1:06 for five furlongs and can’t get his feet out from under him, he will run in the Classic barring injury or illness. There would be no other reason not to.

So, the much-anticipated showdown between Curlin and Big Brown  looks as if it’s going to happen. The fighting words from the opposing camps no longer will be empty now that both horses appear to be on a collision course. But can anyone recall a match-up this intriguing and on such a large scale surrounded by such a deep supporting cast? The Breeders’ Cup Classic may very well turn into a two-horse race, but until it does, you cannot focus on just these two horses, especially with both making their synthetic surface debuts.

And there is no guarantee that Curlin working well will have any bearing on how he runs in the Classic. Several people in the know said at Belmont on Saturday that the Pro-Ride has been getting very hot in the afternoon, but one would think that will change once the weather cools off in Southern California, assuming that it will. While the stakes on Saturday were pretty formful, a good number of talented horses didn’t seem to handle it, but that is to be expected. You just never know who is going to handle a particular track and who isn’t. Many trainers will tell you that each synthetic surface differs and liking one is no guarantee of liking another.

Idiot Proof, a gem of consistency, tired badly in the Ancient Title (gr. I), while In Summation just couldn’t kick in with authority. Mast Track, who ran big at Hollywood and good at Del Mar, dropped out of it after forcing the pace. Hystericalady, who was 0-for-4 on synthetic surfaces ran OK, but looked nothing like she did in her last three romps on dirt. It wasn’t getting beat by Zenyatta; it was struggling with Santa Teresita the length of the stretch to get second.

A perfect example of what some Eastern horses might have to face in the Breeders’ Cup was the eighth-place finish of 7-5 favorite Regal Ransom in the Norfolk Stakes. After his maiden victory at Saratoga, the second-place horse Brave Victory came back to win by 7 1/2 lengths in his next start; third-place finisher Royal Vindication came back to win by 3 1/2 lengths; and the sixth-place finisher Lord Justice came back to win by 10 1/2 lengths. It was apparent right away that Regal Ransom was not handling the track. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin shipped him right back to New York, and said that the colt scoped clean.

“I feel good that Alan (Garcia) went to ride him, only because he was able to tell me afterward, ‘Don’t worry, this is a nice horse. He hated the track.’ That made me feel better. Let’s throw it out and move on to the dirt for the winter and go from there. You just don’t know. We’ve had horses over the past year work lights out at Keeneland over the Polytrack, yet they don’t show up in the afternoon.”

All in all, it was a good day of racing at Santa Anita, with Zenyatta turning in another monster performance to extend her unbeaten streak to eight.

Getting back to Curlin, the consensus opinion was that his Woodward victory was less than inspiring, especially with his :14 final eighth. But Saratoga can prove tricky at times and everyone was anxious to see in which direction Curlin would go coming off that effort. Although Curlin defeated Wanderin Boy by three-quarters of a length in the Gold Cup after beating him by three lengths in the Woodward, this was a much improved performance and looked more like the old Curlin.

Wanderin Boy, who has now finished second in grade I stakes to Curlin, Invasor, Bernardini, and Lawyer Ron, looked more dangerous in this spot, what with the sloppy track he loves and the lack of a true speed horse to run with him. Wanderin Boy did get a near-perfect trip, setting slow fractions of :48 3/5 and 1:13, but Curlin still was able to come from a half-dozen lengths back over a speed-favoring track and beat him by three-quarters of a length under a hand ride, with Robby Albarado never going to the whip.

This time, Curlin came home his last quarter in about :24 4/5 following a quarter in an exceptional :23 1/5. In most cases, Wanderin Boy’s :23 3/5 fourth quarter would have been enough to cook most horses trying to close into it, but Curlin’s :48 final half was too much for him to withstand.

Credit must be given to Wanderin Boy for another game effort; and also to Nick Zito. How many trainers can boast of having two 7-year-olds with the brilliance of Commentator and Wanderin Boy?

Unlike in the Woodward, Curlin’s stride down the stretch was smooth as silk, with greater extension than he showed at Saratoga. He just seemed like a more confident horse this time and more comfortable in the way he was traveling.

We’ll never know how this race would have played out over a fast track. Curlin has proven he loves the slop and loves Belmont’s wide, sweeping turns, and he will be facing far superior competition in the Classic over an unknown surface and with a much faster pace. That will put Curlin farther back in the pack and give him more to do. But that’s all part of what makes this year’s Classic at least more fascinating than usual. How formful it will be is another matter, but if Curlin can close out his career with a victory under these conditions, he certainly will stamp his legacy, as would Big Brown if he should defeat Curlin and all the synthetic specialists and Europeans. It may turn out that the Classic will prove nothing. But, with their respective accomplishments, a victory over an unknown surface against this calber of competition, most of whom are already proven over a synthetic surface, would be a career finale unprecedented in racing history.

Saturday’s Goodwood Stakes provided 10 horses with a good shot to stamp their ticket to the Classic, although a few were in there with other Breeders’ Cup races in mind. While it was a fairly formful race, there is still one aspect of synthetic surfaces that is going to take some getting used to, and that is the turf-like scenario it often produces. In the Goodwood, the 10 starters finished within eight lengths of each other, while spread out all over the track. The first seven horses were within five lengths of each other. And this was after 1 1/8 miles in 1:47 flat over a blazing-fast, but seemingly fair, surface to those who handled it.

The winner, Well Armed, proved once again he is one of the most honest and talented horses in the country and a perfect complement to his stablemate Colonel John  . Runner-up Tiago   showed he’s now sitting on a huge effort in the Classic,  storming down the stretch after being dead-last at the eighth pole, while coming off a layoff. This horse has proven he can handle any kind of track, except the slop he encountered at Monmouth in last year’s Classic. Third-place finisher Albertus Maximus also closed fast, but he may head to the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, as will fourth-place finisher Surf Cat. European invader Spirit One ran well enough in fifth to be considered for the Classic, but he never really fired. Did his performance serve as a blueprint of how Europe’s big guns will handle the surface? Probably not, but who really knows?

So, as of now, those under consideration for the Classic are Curlin, Big Brown, Well Armed, Go Between, Colonel John, Tiago, Fairbanks, Student Council, Spirit One, Casino Drive, and possibly Duke of Marmalade, Henrythenavigator, and New Approach from Europe (I really don’t see Commentator running, but I guess you never know). If all run, that would give the Classic the winners of this year’s Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Dubai World Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Woodward, Travers, Whitney, Pacific Classic, Stephen Foster, Arlington Million, Florida Derby, Ohio Derby, English Derby, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Irish Champion Stakes, Juddmonte International, English 1,000 Guineas, Irish 1,000 Guineas, St. James’s Palace Stakes, and Prince of Wales’s Stakes, not to mention last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic and Preakness winner. Now that’s what you call too good to be true.

Wild weekend


So, what did we learn from the morass of Breeders’ Cup preps last weekend?

The obvious: Zenyatta is an absolute monster and it’s going to take a freaky effort to beat her in the Ladies Classic. What was most telling about the Lady’s Secret were Zenyatta’s Secretariat-like splits, in which she ran each quarter faster than the previous one. Her splits were :24 4/5, :23 4/5, :23 1/5, :22 3/5, and a final sixteenth in :06 flat. And she does everything with her ears pricked, as if it’s all so effortless. Is there anything this remarkable filly can’t do?

Hystericaladysimply isn’t as formidable on a synthetic surface, and Ginger Punch, who turned in another gutsy effort, is coming to the end of a gut-wrenching 5-year-old campaign, and there is a question how sharp she’ll be traveling to California and facing Zenyatta again. Godolphin has a formidable one-two punch in Music Note and Cocoa Beach, both of whom should only keep improving.

Street Boss will be better suited by a larger field, despite the risk of traffic problems. He likes to circle his field with a sweeping move and needs a contentious pace.

Reade Baker unleashed a pair of synthetic tigers in Bear Now, who easily won the Kentucky Cup Distaff (gr. III), and Fatal Bullet, who crushed his opponents by 7 3/4 lengths in the Kentucky Cup Sprint (gr. III) in a blistering 1:08 flat.

If there is a younger version of Zenyatta, it has to be Oak Leaf (gr. I) winner Stardom Bound, who proved that she is just as devastating going two turns as she is one turn when she again inhaled her opponents and drew clear in typical Zenyatta style. It’s obvious what she wants to be when she grows up.

If English-bred Grand Couturier handles the firm turf at Santa Anita the way he handled the turf at Saratoga and Belmont in his last two starts, the Europeans may have a horse to fear in the Turf (gr. IT). Grand Couturier still looks like a European horse and runs like a European horse, but he’s now an All American, and the way he demolished his opponents in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (gr. IT), he must be considered the horse to beat. He won last year’s Sword Dancer (gr. IT) on firm going, but not as firm as what he’s going to encounter at Santa Anita. As for the Filly & Mare turf (gr. IT), can anyone beat Wait a While in California?

How about the performance of Fabulous Strike in the Vosburgh (gr. I)? For his second start of the year, the first since June 21, and on a sloppy track and in a field loaded with speed, the 5-year-old gelding ran an amazing race to be beaten a head after setting fractions of :21 3/5 and :44 1/5. The overlay of the meet has to be the winner, Black Seventeen, who was the longest price in the field at 23-1, with the next highest-priced horse being 8-1. That was way too high a price, considering he had a perfect post, had won over a “good” track in last year’s Carry Back (gr. II) at Calder, and is by Is It True, who upset Easy Goer in the slop in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

The not so obvious: Two of the most compelling, feel-good stories in this year’s Breeders’ Cup will be small-time Florida horsemen Bennie Stutts, who has Smooth Air in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, and Pete Anderson, who will send out Delightful Kiss in the Marathon. Both horses were impressive in their victories in the Needles at Calder and All American at Golden Gate, respectively. Stutts has seven horses in training and Anderson only the one. Anderson, who rode Forego at 2 and through the Kentucky Derby, used to ride regularly for Stutts’ father, and he and Bennie were like brothers growing up. When he was asked by Steve Byk on “At the Races” what the odds were of both of them having a horse in the same Breeders’ Cup, Anderson replied, “Vegas couldn’t make odds that long.”

No jockey deserves to win a Breeders’ Cup race more than Richard Migliore, who gave Fairbanks a masterful ride in the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II). The son of Giant’s Causeway will either be aimed for the Classic or the Marathon. Although he didn’t beat a particularly strong field at Hawthorne, he won with authority and is in top form, as he was last year when he romped in the Tokyo City at Santa Anita, earning a spectacular 115 Beyer speed figure, and followed that up with a strong second in the Suburban Handicap (gr. I). He has excellent tactical speed and can carry it, which always makes him dangerous. As for The Mig, no one has had more untimely injuries, especially right before the Breeders’ Cup – once only days before he was to have ridden Artie Schiller in the Mile. The horse went on to win with Garrett Gomez aboard.

Fairbanks’ trainer, Todd Pletcher, also captured the Yellow Ribbon (gr. IT) with Wait a While and the Clement Hirsch (gr. IT) with Red Giant, who set a new world record of 1:57.16 for 1 1/4 miles. Red Giant’s owner, Peachtree Stable, also finished third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup with Merchant Marine.

It’s always nice to see Zanjero, who has lived in Curlin’s shadow the past two years, win a big race, and he did just that in the Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. II).

Looking for a live under-the-radar horse for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to at least pick up a piece of it? Keep an eye on Believe in Hope, a strong closer who has been dying to stretch out to two turns. In the Norfolk (gr. I), he was down on the inside most of the way and closed willingly to finish third, beaten three-quarters of a length.

West Side Bernie is now unbeaten in two starts after his convincing score in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile (gr. III) for Kelly Breen.

Most Popular Stories