(This article appears in the May 27, 2007 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine.)
Thoroughbred racing is a sport of contrasting emotions, ranging from euphoria to despair and laced with a heavy dose of what might have beens. It often takes a special horse to bring all those emotions to the surface, and after watching the 132nd Preakness Stakes (gr. I), there is no doubt that Curlin is that kind of horse.
Never before has a Thoroughbred crammed so much into the first three-and-a-half months of his racing life, while affecting the lives of so many people. This whirlwind introduction to racing reached a glorious, yet bittersweet, climax when Curlin ended the Triple Crown dreams of Street Sense and his popular connections by dealing the winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) an agonizing head defeat in the Preakness before a record crowd of 121,263.
Many in attendance and watching on TV were crushed when Street Sense’s apparent victory was snuffed out at the wire by a resurging Curlin, who had been pretty much given up for dead after stumbling at the start, and then feeling the mighty force of Street Sense blow by him at the head of the stretch. But from the wreckage of another shattered Triple Crown attempt came what many believe to be racing’s next superstar.
The son of Smart Strike, out of the Deputy Minister mare Sherriff’s Deputy, came to Baltimore with his own built-in fan club, consisting of a new team of owners assembled by bloodstock agent John Moynihan, who purchased the colt on their behalf for a reported $3.5-$3.7 million in early February following his devastating 12 3/4-length maiden victory at Gulfstream Park.
Armed with sheer numbers, Team Curlin, comprised of Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables, Satish and Anne Sanan’s Padua Stables, George Bolton, and the colt’s original owners Shirley Cunningham and William Gallion of Midnight Cry Stables, celebrated their colt's victory, along with Moynihan and trainer Steve Asmussen and his family.
But in situations such as this, behind the celebration there are those left behind. As the cheers rang out for Curlin, another scene was being played out a short distance away. Watching the race in the hospitality tent at the end of the stakes barn was Curlin’s former trainer Helen Pitts, who had earlier seen her Midnight Cry Stables’ grass star Einstein stumble while avoiding a fallen horse in the Dixie Stakes (gr. IIT). The son of Spend a Buck unseated his rider, Robby Albarado, who would come back to ride Curlin to victory. Einstein, second choice at 5-2, then ran loose the rest of the way, suffering a minor injury when he grabbed his quarter.
Two races later, Pitts had to watch the colt she had nurtured through a series of physical problems as a 2-year-old and whom she finally was able to get to the races at 3, become a classic winner for another trainer.
“I have mixed feelings,” she said afterward. “I really don’t want to say anything. I’m just happy for Steve and Scott (Asmussen’s assistant Scott Blasi). Horses like this are hard to come by, and I feel honored to have been a part of him at some point. But what can you do? It’s hard.”
Watching back home in Louisville was Curlin’s former exercise rider Hanne Jorgensen, who had taken his departure particularly hard. “I cried my eyes out when they sold him,” she said shortly after the sale. “We babied him for such a long time. He bucked his shins twice and we tried to get him through it and worked hard with him. And then, one big race and he’s gone. We felt he was something special before he even started; we really did. I remember working him and coming back and saying, ‘I’ve never sat on a horse like this before.’ I understand it’s hard to turn down that kind of money, and they did keep a piece of him, so it wasn’t hard for them. But it’s hard for us, because you get so attached to them.”
On the track, emotions shifted quickly, leaving everyone stunned at the sudden turn of events. When Street Sense charged by Curlin and then Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun, opening a clear lead at the eighth pole, people immediately began planning their trip to Belmont Park, certain they’d be seeing racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 29 years.
Standing along the rail, Street Sense’s hotwalker Paul Rutherford, exercise rider Mark Cutler, and groom Jose Herrarte began pumping their fists in the air and jumping up and down in celebration. But, in a heartbeat, the scene changed, as Curlin, remarkably, came charging late, cutting into Street Sense’s lead with every stride. In a pulsating finish, it was Curlin who managed to stick his head in front. For the Derby winner, certain victory had somehow turned to defeat.
Blasi stared at the slow motion replay on the infield screen, still unsure of the result. Then, the number 4 was posted. “He got it!” he shouted. “The number’s up.”
Up in the boxes, Asmussen, despite encouraging words from those around him, refused to move or even look at the tote board until he was told the numbers were posted.
For the media, a return visit to Street Sense’s affable trainer Carl Nafzger, owner James B. Tafel, and jockey Calvin Borel was abruptly canceled, and all thoughts shifted to the Curlin partnership and Asmussen.
The 41-year-old trainer had his first classic winner, coming on the heels of a six-month suspension for a medication positive, during which time Blasi became the trainer of record.
The emotion in the Asmussen family ran high following the race. “Oh, my gosh, there aren’t any words that can explain the feeling and what it’s like for the kids and me,” said Asmussen’s wife, Julie, who was busy watching their three sons, Keith, 7; Darren, 6; and Erik, 4. “We’re so proud of Steve, and we’re so fortunate. It’s just a blessing and we’re very thankful.”
Erik then put things in a more simple perspective. “Mom, I’m 4 and the horse’s number is 4,” he said. “That’s right,” Julie replied. “That is a lucky number.”
Asmussen’s father, Keith, also was beaming with pride. “Some old kid raised in Laredo, Texas. Can you believe that?” said the elder Asmussen, who, with wife, Marilyn, operates the family-owned El Primero Training Center in Laredo. “I’m so proud of that guy. I couldn’t be anything else. It takes a long time to get here, and most don’t, but he got here.”
He then hugged his 7-year-old namesake and asked him, “You’re proud of your dad, right? You ought to be. It didn’t come easy, did it?”
Steve returned to the barn and immediately embraced his father. Reflecting on the victory, he said, “It’s beautiful. What could you ever want other than this? Everything we have in life is because of racing, and achieving this kind of success is never guaranteed.”
Asmussen thought back to that afternoon of Feb. 3 at Gulfstream Park. He was running Leprechaun Racing’s Gunfight in the 6 1/2-furlong Swale Stakes (gr. II), which would be his only starter at the meet. He had recently lost his big Triple Crown hope, the Jess Jackson-owned Tiz Wonderful, to an injury and was wondering how he was going to replace a horse of that caliber, one who was undefeated and had already won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II).
Asmussen just happened to be stabled in Pitts’ barn that day and was able to see Curlin close up. Everything about the colt impressed him.
Pitts had been given Curlin to train by Cunningham and Gallion after the colt was picked out by her old boss, Kenny McPeek, at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $57,000. McPeek had recently retired from training to do bloodstock work, at least temporarily, turning over the majority of his horses and clients to Pitts. Now, he was looking to get back into training.
“I politicked very hard to get this horse, but they had already promised him to Helen, and they didn’t want to renege on their word,” McPeek said.
“He was the star of the day at the sale, but he had a veterinary issue that I felt ultimately would be a non-issue. He had an OCD lesion removed from his left ankle as a weanling. It wasn’t what I’d call pretty when he sold, but I felt if it wasn’t for that he would have gone for $300,000. No one liked the ankle and they hemmed and hawed for several days. I offered to take the horse back and place him with another client. I just thought at that price he was a steal.”
Cunningham said he and Gallion knew right away they had something special. “We only give Kenny McPeek a modest budget, so we have to do a lot of hard work to find something that’s decent,” Cunningham said. “We instructed Kenny to look for a horse that had the look of a mile-and-a-quarter horse. Fortunately, he came up with this one.”
Curlin was then sent to Gail Garrison, manager of Cunningham’s Hillcrest Farm near Lexington, who began working on the colt’s physical problems. “We brought him home for about 60 days and gave him some rest, then turned him out and let him have some grass,” Garrison recalled. “He was a big, playful kid who was full of vinegar. He just needed time to grow up. He’s got a great big stride and just doesn’t seem to be under any stress at all when he’s running.”
When the colt finally made his debut and destroyed his field by nearly 13 lengths in 1:22.25 for seven furlongs, it immediately set the wheels in motion. Watching the race on simulcast while at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co.’s 2-year-old sale was Moynihan, who is Jackson’s bloodstock manager. Watching from his home in San Francisco was Bolton. Both had the same reaction: “Wow!” Asmussen, after watching the race and seeing the colt cool out afterward, knew "we had to get that horse."
Bolton then contacted someone at the Ragozin Sheets and found out that Curlin had run a “5 3/4,” an extraordinary number for a first-time starter.
Knowing that offers would immediately start pouring in for the colt, Moynihan drove down to Gulfstream to see the horse and contacted Cunningham and Gallion. The first offer to come in was from Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor, who offered $1.75 million, but was “blown out of the water,” as he put it. Cunningham and Gallion wanted to stay in for a minority interest, and the day after the race, Super Bowl Sunday, Moynihan began negotiations, representing Jackson, Bolton, and Sanan. By 2 a.m. Monday morning the deal was completed.
“They had bigger offers for the whole horse, but our pitch was that we let them stay in,” Bolton said.
The only thing left to be done was for Moynihan to look at Curlin on the racetrack to see how he came out of the race and how sound he was. He had Pitts bring him to the track that morning, and after watching the colt “bucking and squealing,” he finalized the deal.
“Selling him was absolutely never a thought in our minds, but after his first race we were approached by some 15 people who were interested in buying him with different scenarios,” Cunningham said. “We were interested in staying involved in the ownership of the horse, and this opportunity gave us the best chance to do that and take on partners we felt we could get along with.”
Asmussen feels everything that transpired was meant to be. “It’s ironic, because if Tiz Wonderful hadn’t gotten hurt, Jess Jackson wouldn’t have been looking for a Derby horse to replace him and I’d be trying to figure out how to beat this horse instead of training him,” Asmussen said.
Racing in Jackson’s colors, Curlin, bred in Kentucky by Fares Farm, won the Rebel Stakes (gr. III) by 5 1/4 lengths. Then, racing in Sanan’s silks, he romped by 10 1/2 lengths in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II). With only three career starts and never having raced as a 2-year-old, Curlin went into the Kentucky Derby trying to do something that hadn’t been done since 1915 and 1882, respectively. But as Bolton said prior to the race, “It’s like he’s a 5-year-old who has been doing it forever. He’s like the kid who can read the entire chemistry textbook the night before a final exam.”
Despite his lack of experience, Curlin struck fear in the hearts of rival horsemen. “He explodes like it’s nothing,” said Bill Kaplan, trainer of Imawildandcrazyguy. “You don’t even know where the bottom of this horse is. It’s an amazing thing to watch an animal like this. I’d be tickled with second, because I can’t beat that horse.” Imawildandcrazyguy finished fourth in the Derby.
Seth Benzel, New York assistant to Todd Pletcher, who had five Derby starters, couldn’t even bring himself to watch the Arkansas Derby. “Curlin is a freak,” he said. “I didn’t even watch his race, because I knew he was going to do what he did and I didn’t want to see it.”
Hard Spun’s trainer Larry Jones said, “Six months from now, we could be looking at Curlin as a super horse.”
As it turned out, Curlin ran a big race to finish third in the Derby. After getting swallowed up by the 20-horse field, Albarado went for an opening on the inside, but Liquidity came off the rail and closed up the hole, at the same time letting Street Sense through.
It was undecided whether to come back in the Preakness or wait for the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), but that indecision didn’t last very long. “Steve called me at 6:30 the morning after the Derby,” Bolton said. “Usually, when you get a call from the barn at 6:30 in the morning it’s not good news. But Steve said, ‘I can’t believe it. He’s got his ears pricked and he wants to go back and jog. The horse is doing great and I just wanted to let you know it. I think we should go to the Preakness.’”
So, Curlin was now headed for the second leg of the Triple Crown and another crack at Street Sense and Hard Spun. “If you’re not going to run a horse like this in the Preakness, what are you waiting on?” Asmussen said. “It’s very important to me that people see who he is.”
The Preakness drew a field of nine, with Circular Quay the only other Derby starter to return. Street Sense was made the overwhelming 6-5 favorite, with Curlin the second choice at 3-1 and Hard Spun 4-1.
At the break, Curlin stumbled, nearly going to his knees. That would have been enough to eliminate most horses, but Curlin would show he is not like most horses. Federico Tesio winner Xchanger shot to the front, with the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Flying First Class giving chase. The pair went at it, quickly opening three lengths on Hard Spun in third through an opening quarter in :22.83 and a half in a swift :45.75.
Curlin was able to settle in seventh, about a dozen lengths off the pace, with Street Sense saving ground in eighth. Down the backstretch, jockey Mario Pino, racing with cover behind the battling leaders, eased Hard Spun to the outside, and when the colt saw daylight, it put run on his mind. In a flash, Hard Spun and Pino made up four lengths, charging right on by Xchanger and Flying First Class, while running his third quarter in a testing :23 1/5.
No one could understand what Pino was thinking making such a big early move through such a wicked pace. When he looked back over his right shoulder down the backstretch and saw C P West bearing down on him, it appears as if he took Hard Spun to the outside to avoid being boxed in behind the two battling speed horses, who were sure to tire. Once Hard Spun was out in the clear, he took off. Pino tried to give him a breather, and the colt did come back to him a bit after clearing the two leaders.
As they came to the quarter pole, Hard Spun, as he had done in the Derby, opened up a clear lead and seemed to be cruising along. C P West attempted to move with him and looked strong around the turn, rolling up right behind Hard Spun. But the Withers Stakes (gr. III) runner-up couldn’t stay with him.
Then, into the picture came the blue and black silks of Midnight Cry Stables, as Curlin came charging up on the outside. Just when it looked as if he would pose a serious threat to Hard Spun, here came Street Sense, who had slipped to the inside and then eased out to launch what looked to be a winning move. After three-quarters in 1:09.80, he rolled right on by Curlin from the inside and took dead aim at Hard Spun. In a matter of a few strides, Street Sense again ran by Hard Spun, who was beginning to feel the effects of the rapid pace and his premature move.
The Derby winner was 1 1/2 lengths in front at the eighth pole after a mile in 1:34.68. This was it. The Preakness was a done deal, and now it was time to start thinking seriously about the Triple Crown. But, just then, the picture changed dramatically. Curlin, with those huge strides of his, had been stuck on his left lead after failing to negotiate Pimlico’s tight turn. Albarado threw a cross on him, gave him two right-handed cracks of the whip, and then yanked him to the inside to try to get him to switch to his right lead. It worked, as Curlin switched over and began bearing down on Street Sense. Why Calvin Borel looked back over his shoulder as Curlin moved up alongside him is anyone's guess. He had to know there was someone running down his throat. Who it was should not have mattered at that point.
Thoughts of a Triple Crown sweep began to evaporate with every one of Curlin’s giant strides. Everyone knew it was going to be close. Albarado kept hitting Curlin right-handed and the chestnut stuck his head in front right on the wire. No one could believe what had happened and how quickly and unexpectedly the complexion of the race and the Triple Crown had changed.
“When I saw it was going to be close, I said, ‘Oh, God, please let him get there,’ ” Moynihan said. “It would have been a travesty if he had gotten beat after all that happened to him.”
Street Sense was gallant in defeat, finishing four lengths ahead of Hard Spun, who was 1 1/2 lengths ahead of C P West, who ran a huge race at 24-1, suggesting big things for the future. “This was a major step forward for the horse,” owner Robert LaPenta said. “We feel like we won the race.”
The final time of 1:53.46 equaled the fastest Preaknesses ever run, with Curlin’s final three-sixteenths in about :18 2/5 among the fastest in Preakness history. Galloping out after the race, Borel said to his close friend Albarado, “You got me. Congratulations.”
Nafzger said he was disappointed in the outcome, but not in the horse. “It was heartbreaking,” he said. “Curlin ran a hell of a race, but we had him, and we never should have let him come back and get us. I think our horse got to the lead and thought he won. But he’s still as good a horse as he ever was.”
After Nafzger went down to the track, and most of the people in the boxes began to clear out, a dazed James Tafel stood there by himself watching Curlin being led into the winner’s circle, trying to figure out what had happened.
By the next morning, it had all sunk in, and thoughts turned to the Belmont, which could bring Curlin, Street Sense, and Hard Spun together once again.
Asmussen admits that after Curlin, “there will be no more under the radar for me.” With 210 horses in his care, and picking up where he left off before his suspension, Asmussen’s philosophy in racing and in life is, “You’re never beat unless you quit.”
Curlin was proof of that.