Now that we’re in the eye of the Breeders’ Cup storm, with the deluge of preps behind us and the main event only two weeks away, this is the perfect time to recognize a trainer and a horse whose accomplishments may have gone overlooked – Steve Asmussen and Red Giant .
All the talk has been about Curlin and his earnings record and place in history, but few mention the brilliant and meticulous training job by Steve Asmussen. Just go back over the colt’s career and look at how many times Asmussen has thrown away the book and taken the training of a star Thoroughbred to a new level. It is doubtful there has been a more carefully planned campaign with so much attention to detail and a willingness to attempt something out of the ordinary.
Let’s go back to May of last year. Curlin, with no 2-year-old foundation under him, had just run a solid third in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) in only his fourth career start, three of them in graded stakes. With four starts crammed into a three-month period, the logical move would have been to back off, let the colt take a deep breath, and wait for the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). But when Asmussen noticed how well Curlin bounced out of the Derby, he decided to bring him right back in the Preakness (gr. I), and the result was a courageous head victory over Derby winner Street Sense, equaling the stakes record.
Following a head defeat in the Belmont, where the grueling schedule may have caught up to the colt a little, Asmussen, in typical fashion, put Curlin away for eight weeks and brought him back in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), but the colt ran an uninspired third, beaten 4 1/2 lengths. Many trainers would have said he needed the race and run him back in the Travers (gr. I), feeling he’d be much sharper with the Haskell under his belt. But Asmussen put him away for another eight weeks to point for the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) against older horses.
The move proved to be a brilliant one, as Curlin, with only one race in 16 weeks, returned a different horse and gamely wore down Lawyer Ron, who was coming off spectacular victories in the grade I Whitney and Woodward, to win by a neck. That race set him up perfectly for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), which he won by 4 1/2 lengths to nail down Horse of the Year honors.
Now comes 2008, and it gets better. The plan all along was to point for the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I). The recipe for success in the world’s richest race has been to run once in the United States, and then go to Dubai seven-to-10 days before the race. But Asmussen doesn’t believe in using other people’s recipes if he feels he has a better one. In an unprecedented move, he sent Curlin to Dubai on Feb. 17, six weeks before the World Cup, and ran him in a 1 1/4-mile prep race, the Jaguar Trophy on Feb. 28, carrying 132 pounds. Asmussen felt it was better to get the horse there early to get him acclimated to the desert heat and the new surroundings and put a prep in him, and it worked out perfectly.
Curlin scored a comfortable victory in the Jaguar Trophy, while saving plenty for the big race. He came back on March 29 and romped by 7 3/4 lengths in the World Cup in 2:00 flat. Asmussen had re-written the book on how to prepare for the Dubai World Cup.
Curlin returned 2 1/2 months later and easily won the Stephen Foster (gr. I). Majority owner Jess Jackson’s ultimate goal for the son of Smart Strike was an ambitious one -- the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fra-I). The plan was to run in the Man o’War Stakes (gr. IT) at Belmont to see how effective Curlin was on the grass. If he passed that test, he would head to France and use the Prix Foy (Fra-III) at Longchamp as a prep for the Arc, again to get him acclimated and used to the testing course. But Curlin ran into a pair of Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) winners in the Man o’War, and although he finished ahead of 2004 winner Better Talk Now, he was no match for 2006 winner, English invader Red Rocks. It was decided to scrap the Arc, with no ultimate goal in mind.
Victories in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup followed, opening the door for a possible try at a second Breeders’ Cup Classic, despite Jackson’s reluctance to run Curlin on a synthetic surface. Immediately after the Gold Cup, Asmussen’s wheels started turning and he hatched another unorthodox plan. Jackson had assumed Asmussen would give Curlin a week at Belmont Park to unwind before sending him to Santa Anita to test out the Pro-Ride surface, and said as much over the phone following the race. But first thing the next morning, Curlin was on a plane to California.
After a conventional slow half-mile breeze by himself over the Pro-Ride, Asmussen announced that Curlin would work five furlongs in company on Monday, Oct. 13…between the fourth and fifth races at approximately 2:40 in the afternoon. Horses have worked after training hours before, but usually before the first race, or between the first and second or second and third race. Asmussen, knowing how the Pro-Ride changes from the morning to the afternoon after being exposed to the sun and heat, decided to wait as late in the day as possible in order to reproduce the kind of track Curlin will be running on in the Classic.
If Curlin goes on to win the Classic, he will secure his place in the history books. And so will his trainer.
There was a recent column about how poorly the Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) is shaping up, especially with the absence of Zarkava. The American horses mentioned were Grand Couturier and former European Red Rocks, while the big-name Euros included Soldier of Fortune and Eagle Mountain.
But there is one horse who has not gotten a mention anywhere, and that is Peachtree Stable’s Red Giant, who is being dismissed by many mainly because he’s never been 1 1/2 miles, and is coming off narrow victories at 1 1/4 miles and 1 1/16 miles.
Well, first off, it must be acknowledged that Johar had never been 1 1/2 miles before he dead-heated with European superstar High Chaparral, who had already won the BC Turf the year before. Johar, like Red Giant, was coming off a close finish in the Clement Hirsch (gr. IT), with his prior start being at 1 1/16 miles. So, there are huge similarities between the two.
As for Red Giant, is there a gamer horse in training right now? In the Clement Hirsch and Fourstardave (gr. IIT) at Saratoga, he was determined to win and simply would not be denied. Just look at the photos of both those finishes and see how stretched out Red Giant is at the wire, with his ears pinned back. This is a horse who gives 100% every time and seems to relish a fight. He won last year’s Virginia Derby (gr. IIT) and Restoration Stakes at Monmouth with that same dogged determination. The only close decision he has lost was in last year’s Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT), in which he opened a clear lead too soon in midstretch and was nailed in the final strides by Shamdinan, who had finished third in the French Derby (Fra-I) and would go on to finish second in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
In the Clement Hirsch, Red Giant set a new world record of 1:57 flat, with a final quarter in :24 flat, which was two full seconds faster than Wait a While’s victory in the Yellow Ribbon (gr. IT) the same day. In the Virginia Derby, he ran 1 1/4 miles in 1:59 3/5, setting a new course record, with a final quarter in :23 flat. In the Fourstardave, he ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:41 4/5 over a yielding course. In nine starts on the turf, he has six wins at six different racetracks and three seconds, and has won on firm, good, and yielding courses.
In the Clement Hirsch, Red Giant turned in an explosive move on the far turn, making up 10 lengths in a quarter of a mile, while running that fourth quarter in :22 flat. He then out-dueled Out of Control the length of the stretch, pulling six lengths clear of the third horse.
So far, there is nothing this horse can’t do, and there is no reason why he won’t be effective at 1 1/2 miles. He’s by Giant’s Causeway, and his female family has produced a number of classic winners in Europe, including Horse of the Year Lammtarra, winner of the Group I English Derby, Arc de Triomphe, and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes; champion filly Awaasif, winner of the Group I Yorkshire Oaks and Gran Premio del Jockey Club, and third in the Arc de Triomphe; champion filly Bosra Sham, winner of the Group I Champion Stakes, One Thousand Guineas, and Prince of Wales’s Stakes; Hector Protector, winner of the Group I French Two Thousand Guineas, and Shanghai, winner of the French Two Thousand Guineas. Florida Derby (gr. I) and Hopeful (gr. I) winner Mercedes Won also comes from this family, along with a number of major stakes winners in Canada.
Many people will wonder if Red Giant is going to "bounce" off such a gut-wrenching race in word-record time. No one can answer that, but you can be sure trainer Todd Pletcher will take that into consideration in his training of the horse. We'll see how he works on Sunday.
The bottom line is you won’t find many horses who combine courage, class, speed, versatility, and consistency more than Red Giant. He should be the favorite or second choice in the Turf, but no one is even talking about him. Ignore him at your own risk.