Steve Haskin's Belmont Report: Curlin vs. Rags Has Belmont Abuzz

When all is said and done, the 139th Belmont Stakes (gr. I) has turned out to be one heck of a race after all, Street Sense or no Street Sense. We have seven legitimate horses, with none of the usual no-hopers that seem to pop out of the woodwork for the third leg of the Triple Crown, and a classic male vs. female showdown.

Wednesday’s post position draw, as expected, was uneventful due to the small size of the field and the length of the race.

The addition of Rags to Riches to the field has generated the kind of buzz the race desperately needed, and reporters from all over the country now have a new angle on which to focus.

But even with all the attention on Rags to Riches, the big horse still is Curlin, who was made the 6-5 morning line favorite. The more you look at Curlin the more amazed you have to be with what he’s accomplished in such a short period of time and with the horse as an individual.

It wasn’t until 4:20 Tuesday afternoon that the son of Smart Strike finally stepped off the van after being delayed in Louisville. Actually, stepped off is not quite accurate. Curlin bounced off the van, and bounced all the way to Steve Asmussen’s barn, as if he knows it’s time to get the competitive juices flowing again. Judging from his appearance, he’s fit and ready for action. He’s held his weight well through the first two legs of the Triple Crown and his muscle tone suggests he’s primed for another big effort. After his phenomenal Preakness victory, many handicappers feel he will regress to some degree in his speed figures, but even a regression of several points would be enough to win this race. That’s how consistently fast he’s been throughout his brief, but meteoric career.

But with Curlin, it’s all about class and a professionalism beyond his years. All you had to so was watch him getting bathed shortly after arriving. He stood like a statue with his head up and ears cocked the entire time, oblivious to everything, including pigeons flying directly in front of him. At times he stood there transfixed on the few TV cameras that were shooting him, as if he were enjoying the attention.

This morning, he had a solid mile gallop, moving well down the stretch, but with his head cocked to the inside every step of the way. It’s hard to tell whether he was looking around in the infield or just has a tendency to gallop with his head cocked.

Shortly after Curlin came Rags to Riches, who walked in the paddock before coming on to the track for her gallop. Not only do we have a great matchup between these two extraordinary Thoroughbreds, but they both look the part. On Tuesday afternoon, Rags to Riches was out grazing, and her coat shined like burnished copper (pardon the cliché). She is a powerhouse of a filly, both up front and behind, and definitely has a presence about her. She also has a bit of a feisty streak, rearing slightly a couple of times. Her handler, however, said this was pretty relaxed for her.

Continuing on the subject of appearance, and it’s going to sound like everyone looks great, but the truth is, this is an extremely impressive-looking group of horses. You couldn’t help but notice how outstanding Hard Spun looks following two grueling Triple Crown races. He’s also held his flesh well, he’s bright and alert, and his coat looks sensational. Perhaps the most improved horse physically is Tiago, who looks fitter and more muscle-toned than he did for the Kentucky Derby.

It was also interesting watching Imawildandcrazyguy gallop 1 3/4 miles this morning. The son of Wild Event is very light on his feet and just keeps going at a strong, steady pace. When he came off the track, his exercise rider Felicity Waugh was breathing harder than he was.

C P West hasn’t arrived from Saratoga yet, but if he looks anywhere near as good as he looked before the Preakness, you can add his name to the longshot possibilities. It is also worth noting that C P West is the only Belmont starter to have run at Belmont Park, turning in a big effort to finish a close second to King of the Roxy in the Futurity Stakes (gr. II).

Not having seen Slew’s Tizzy yet, we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to comment on him.

So, it looks as though it’s going to be a tough race to pick, and all depends on whether or not you’re looking for a price horse to possibly knock off Curlin, Rags to Riches, and Hard Spun. If Curlin handles the track and the distance, and doesn’t hit the proverbial wall many have been expecting him to hit, then it’s going to take a super performance to not only beat him, but to finish anywhere close to him. Then again, we don’t know just how special Rags to Riches is, so it all adds up to one fascinating  race.