The 1 3/8-mile event drew six rivals for America's reigning Horse of the Year, including past Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) winners Red Rocks and Better Talk Now and grade I victor Grand Couturier, who captured last summer's Sword Dancer at Saratoga.
But in spite of the quality opposition, all eyes are on the 4-year-old Curlin, who won the 2007 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) and the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) earlier this year. He dismantled the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) field at Churchill Downs last month. Already proven the best around on dirt, the son of Smart Strike will be making his turf debut.
In a much publicized development, Asmussen and majority owner Jess Jackson are hoping to use the Man o' War as a springboard for a journey to France for the Prix Foy (Fr-I) and ultimately, a shot at the Prix de L’arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) at Longchamp Race Course in Paris on Oct. 5.
“I think that’s the question we want answered this weekend, whether Curlin is of the caliber to be considered for the Arc on the turf,” Asmussen said. “Two previous Breeders’ Cup Turf winners should definitely give us that measure.
“The perfect plan for us – for me, for Curlin and for everybody associated with him – is to first establish his level of quality on the turf in the Man o ’War, and not get ahead of ourselves,” said Asmussen. “We have to see if he can compete at the same level. If he can compete at this level on the turf and we get the race that we expect, we will map out how to win the Arc with him.
"I think that getting him over there immediately and getting him used to going right (on right-handed turns) would be the biggest obstacle that we face. If we establish that he’s as good a horse on the turf as he is on the dirt, then we get him over there and get him relaxed, comfortable and confident, and doing right.”
Under conditions set for the race, Curlin carries 116 pounds in the Man o' War, four fewer than three others in the field -- Better Talk Now, Grand Couturier and Sudan, who won a group I race in Italy last year and is coming off a grade III triumph in the Golden Gate Fields Turf last month for trainer Bobby Frankel.
Curlin owns a five-race winning streak that also includes a victory in last fall's Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) at Belmont. He drew the far outside post for the Man o' War and will be guided once again by Robby Albarado.
ESPNews will televise the Man o’ War, race 9 of a 10-race card, at 5:15 p.m. Eastern.
Among the leading rivals are Bushwood Stable’s Better Talk Now. The 9-year-old Talkin Man horse won the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Lone Star in 2004 and was beaten a half-length in the 2006 Turf by Red Rocks.
“We are very excited about this race on Saturday," said trainer H. Graham Motion. "It is shaping up to be a race for the ages.”
The late-running Better Talk Now won the Man o’War in 2005 and will attempt to become the oldest horse to win it this time around.
He is also coming into the race off an unlucky fifth-place finish in the 1 1/4-mile Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT) on Belmont Stakes Day, June 7, where he was beaten less than three lengths after being blocked. Motion says Better Talk Now is doing great.
“Every year, all you hear about are the three-year-olds," Motion said. "This is like a throwback race, where you have good older horses competing. Better Talk Now has never ducked anyone and he is too old to start now. I am looking forward to running and hope that each horse runs his race. To me, this is very exciting. Not only do we face Curlin, but we get a chance at Red Rocks again for what he did to us in the Breeders’ Cup.”
J. Paul Reddam’s lightly raced 5-year-old Red Rocks, an Irish-bred based in Great Britain, will add blinkers for the Man o’ War. He left quarantine at Aqueduct July 10 and arrived at Mark Hennig’s barn at 4 p.m. Trainer Brian Meehan was expected to arrive soon after.
Marc Keller’s 5-year-old Grand Couturier gave trainer Robert Ribaudo his first grade I victory when he won Saratoga’s Sword Dancer Invitational last summer.
“He’s had some ankle issues, so we have to take the races as they come," Ribaudo said. "Our goal this year was to get back to the Sword Dancer. We didn’t bring him back until June, and we got a really good race from him, even though he didn’t win. He was doing so good that we decided to run in the Man o’War.”
Godolphin Stable’s True Cause was beaten a head by Distorted Reality in the Academy Award, with Grand Couturier third. That effort was good enough to earn the 5-year-old Storm Cathorse a berth in the Man o’ War.
Gary A. Tanaka’s Sudan is the likely pacesetter, although Mission Approved also comes into the race off a front-running grade III victory. Gary Contessa trains the With Approval colt.
$500,000 Man o' War Stakes (gr. IT, Race 9, 5:15 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 3/8 MIles (Turf)
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. Better Talk Now (KY), 120, Ramon A. Dominguez
2. Grand Couturier (GB), 120, Calvin H. Borel
3. Mission Approved (NY), 116, David Cohen
4. True Cause (KY), 116, Rajiv Maragh
5. Sudan (IRE), 120, John R. Velazquez
6. Red Rocks (IRE), 116, Javier Castellano
7. Curlin (KY), 116, Robby Albarado