Curlin, the 2007 Horse of the Year and 3-5 morning line favorite for the June 14 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I), schooled in the paddock at Churchill Downs following the fifth race June 12. He was accompanied by trainer Steve Asmussen and assistant trainer Scott Blasi.
"For him, it's just business as usual," Blasi said. "He's got good energy and he feels very strong; he's acting like the Curlin we know. They made an announcement that he was walking over and a lot of spectators hung out at the rail after the horses went out to the track, but it's not necessarily the crowd he's used to. He ran at some very big venues between the two races in Dubai and the Breeders' Cup Classic. But he definitely knows something's about to happen."
The 4-year-old son of Smart Strikedrew the rail post in a field of 10 older stars in the 27th running of the 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster, which is carded as the 10th of 11 races on the “Stephen Foster Super Saturday” and offers a purse of $1 million.
“I’m very anxious to run him,” Asmussen told the Churchill Downs notes team at his barn prior to the colt’s schooling session. “He’s a very exciting horse to be around, and this is his purpose. He’s very dialed-in. I think he’s an absolutely gorgeous animal, but I’m biased.”
The race will be Curlin’s first since he cruised to a 7 ¾-length romp in the Emirates Airline Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) on March 29. Curlin will attempt to become the second horse to complete the World Cup-Stephen Foster double. Godolphin’s Dubai-based Street Crydominated both races in 2002.
Curlin has worked strongly at Churchill Downs in preparation for the Foster, including a brilliant seven-furlong work in 1:24.60 on June 2. Asmussen believes his champion is ready, although he has “normal” concerns over the colt’s draw of the rail post at a 1 1/8-mile distance that is probably a bit short of his best. Curlin is one-for-two at the Foster’s 1 1/8 miles, but has won four of five races at 1 ¼ miles – with his third-place finish to Street Sense and Hard Spun in last year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) being his only setback at that distance.
“He’s not a ‘juvenile’ as he was when I think (post position) came into play,” he said. “He’s a very seasoned animal. I’m very pleased with how comfortable he is with his surroundings, but he needs to run. The test is going to be how fast you are. Reputation doesn’t win races – how fast you’re going does.”
Curlin has been very fast in his career and brings an 8-1-2 record in 11 races and earnings of $8,807,800 into Saturday’s Stephen Foster Handicap, trailing only Cigar’s $9,999,815 and Skip Away’s $9,616,360 on the North American all-time earning list. With his two victories in Dubai to start the year, Asmussen’s first “Horse of the Year” is off to a grand start on 2008 – but his trainer knows there are still six important months remaining in the year.
“I think that this is exactly the beginning of the second half of it, and I think you want to savor it as much as possible,” Asmussen said. “That being said, I think the first half was decided and that went perfectly. So I think this is very exciting and this is the second half. We broke it up the same as last year, into two separate campaigns.”
Asmussen was outspoken about his unhappiness with the 128-pound impost assigned to Curlin for the Stephen Foster. He said that concern was both for the champion’s comeback in the Stephen Foster and for what the colt could face in handicap races down the road should he be as successful as Asmussen hopes on Saturday.
“You plan on having success, that’s why you do this,” he said. “I think most all of the time everybody’s walking over there thinking they’re going to win – that’s why they’re walking over there. But where do you go from here? Also, it’s quite substantial to be giving 10 to 15 pounds to this quality of older horses. How much is enough? Weight matters, and how much matters. Everything has a point where it’s not worth it.”