Casino Drive

Casino Drive


Cup Countdown: No Ordinary Horse

Curlin's appearance in the Breeders' Cup is no longer a luxury but a necessity.

This headline was originally written about Casino Drive, who will be discussed later. But Big Brown’sretirement obviously takes precedence. So, although the column now leads with Big Brown, the head does not need to be changed.

Big Brown’s retirement, combined with Curlin’s exceptional work on Monday, means that Curlin’s appearance in the Breeders’ Cup Classic is no longer a luxury but a necessity. He is the only remaining marquee name that has been able to cross over into mainstream America and the horse that is needed to fuel the Breeders’ Cup.

Racing fans did not just lose a national headliner in Big Brown. They lost much more, and it’s a shame many were not able to recognize just what a special horse this was and how strongly he should have been embraced. It is at least appropriate that his final two races were in front of adoring, enthusiastic crowds at Monmouth Park who paid him the tribute he deserved.

It was also appropriate that his final start was one in which he displayed the courage that stamps the truly exceptional horses. And even in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), he was able to turn certain defeat into victory with sheer determination, while still running the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48 1/5. In his final start, on turf, he ran the nine furlongs in 1:47 2/5 and came home his final eighth in :12 flat, defeating the winners of 19 turf stakes, 12 of them graded. The third-place finisher, Shakis, coming off a victory in the grade II Bernard Baruch, went on to finish a fast-closing second in the grade I Shadwell Mile in his next start.

Beyer speed figure pundits claim Big Brown wasn’t as fast as champions of the past, but his Ragozin and Thoro-Graph numbers for the Kentucky Derby were the fastest ever recorded, including those of Secretariat, Monarchos, Spend a Buck, and other brilliant Derby winners. What makes those figures even more amazing was the fact that he also recorded the fourth fastest final Derby prep ever. So, instead of regressing off that race or pairing up, as the three horses who ran as fast or faster in their final prep did, he actually jumped up and ran a bigger number. Horses just don’t do that.

And he accomplished that in only his third and fourth races of his career and breaking from posts 12 and 20, respectively. The last horse to win the Derby with only three career starts was in 1915, and no horse had ever won the Derby from post 20. Although his speed figures regressed a bit in the Preakness, which was expected, he still won by 5 1/4 lengths and was virtually eased in the final furlong.

Many also criticized his competition, something he had no control over. Yet, the horses he defeated did manage to come back to finish 1-3 in the Travers (gr. I), 1-3 in the Ohio Derby (gr. II), 1-2 in the Jim Dandy (gr. II), 1-3 in the Swaps Stakes (gr. II), 1-3 in the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), 1-3 in the  Northern Dancer (gr. III), and first in King's Bishop (gr. I). And the only one to compete against older horses in a major race (Anak Nakal) finished a fast-closing second in the Meadowlands Cup (gr. II).

Big Brown never lost a race he finished, and except for his still unexplained meltdown in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), he was the consummate professional in everything he did. He had a swagger to him, he loved the attention, and he had charisma. He would stop while walking the shed to pose for photographers, and was aware of everything around him. One time, after being led out to be washed, he looked up and intently eyed a pigeon on the roof for several minutes. There was nothing about him that wasn’t special, and while no one is comparing him to Secretariat, there is little doubt he had greatness in him. It could have been solidified in the Breeders’ Cup, but we’ll never have a chance to find out.

Casino Royale

Now back to Casino Drive, whose effortless three-quarter-length victory in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race Sunday proved to be perhaps the most important prep yet for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I).

It obviously was not based on the competition he beat or the margin or anything related to statistics. From his own standpoint, he proved once again that he is no ordinary horse and cannot be compared to anyone we’ve seen in this country.

Ordinary horses don’t come here from Japan and win the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) in dominating fashion in only his second career start, after having been isolated for 60 days before leaving for America and only allowed to train at 3:30 in the morning and then flying for 14 hours with a layover in Alaska. Ordinary horses don’t then win by 5 3/4 lengths and run 1 1/8 miles in 1:47 4/5 11 days later.

Ordinary horses don’t return 22 weeks later, without a race in between, and then toy with their opponents in their first start on a synthetic surface, coming off only a slow five-furlong breeze.

Having watched this horse morning after morning before the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) walk briskly for a total of an hour and half before and after his gallops and not take a deep breath, it was apparent this was unlike any horse we’ve seen, and that the Japanese training methods are something we know very little about, but should start taking seriously. You will not see a happier, fitter horse than Casino Drive prior to the Belmont. And you will not find a more gracious and passionate group of horsemen and fans than the Japanese.

Casino Drive’s connections remained gracious and cordial even after the colt’s ill-timed foot bruise two days before the Belmont Stakes, preventing him from possibly becoming the third straight Belmont winner produced by his dam Better Than Honour. Even the hundreds of fans and media from Japan who came here for the race remained in good spirits. There were no outward displays of displeasure, and whatever disappointment and frustration they were feeling were kept well hidden. In short, we have a lot to learn from the Japanese.

But what made Casino Drive’s allowance victory so important was that he showed a horse with no experience on a synthetic surface can come to Santa Anita and win over the new Pro-Ride surface, something that should give hope to the connections of Curlin and any other horses making their synthetic surface debut.

Honor Student

While all the attention will be paid to Curlin in the Classic, it would not be wise to dismiss his stablemate Student Council, who will be an enticing price.  No, he did not run particularly well in the Pacific Classic (gr. I), a race he won last year, but his performance did not come as a big surprise to his connections. Student Council was ripe for a bounce after earning a huge 112 Beyer figure in his second-place finish to Commentator in the Whitney. It is worth noting that the 112 Beyer is the co-second fastest by any horse this year, equaling Curlin’s Woodward victory, which many feel was his least impressive performance of the year.

Student Council is your quintessential all-purpose horse, having finished first, second, or third (mostly in stakes) on dirt at Churchill Downs; on grass at Saratoga; on Polytrack at Turfway Park; on dirt at Fair Grounds; on Polytrack at Keeneland; on dirt at Sam Houston; on dirt at Pimlico; on Cushion Track at Hollywood Park; on dirt at Oaklawn Park; on dirt at Hawthorne; on Polytrack at Del Mar; and on dirt at Saratoga.

He’s won on fast, wet fast, good, muddy, and sloppy dirt tracks, and on three different Polytrack surfaces.

At ages 5 and 6 alone, he’s managed to win the grade I Pimlico Special and Pacific Classic, grade II Hawthorne Gold Cup, and the listed Maxxim Gold Cup, and placed in the grade I Whitney and Hollywood Gold Cup, and grade III Alysheba Stakes and Razorback Handicap. During that time, he’s also been to Japan and has been trained by three different trainers, while changing barns four times.

This is a horse who goes out there and gives his all and is going to be dangerous regardless of what surface he’s running over. With a freshening since the Pacific Classic, if he takes to the Pro-Ride like he takes to everything else, he could have a say in the Classic at a big price.