When 2007 began, trainer Steve Asmussen was having Triple Crown dreams about a colt named Tiz Wonderful. Those dreams were dashed when the son of Tiznow injured his right front tendon and was sent to the sidelines, and it looked as if Asmussen would be watching the spring classics alongside his talented runner.
Tiz Wonderful debuted with a 12 1/2-length victory last September at Saratoga and then won the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs by 6 3/4 lengths in his second career start. He ended his juvenile career with a half-length score in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II). He was then sent to Fair Grounds to begin preparation for his 3-year-old campaign when his injury occurred in mid-January.
Fast-forward four months and Asmussen is once again having visions of smelling the roses on the First Saturday in May. He is now the trainer of Curlin, the likely favorite for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) May 5 at Churchill Downs.
Curlin joined the far-reaching Asmussen stable after breaking his maiden by 12 3/4 lengths Feb. 3 at Gulfstream Park for trainer Helen Pitts. It was after his maiden-breaking tour de force that Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stables, who also owns Tiz Wonderful, purchased the majority interest in the colt. The colt now races for Jackson, Satish and Anne Sanan's Padua Stables, George Bolton, and his original ownership group, Bill Gallion and Shirley Cunningham's Midnight Cry Stables.
Asmussen intends to buck Derby tradition when he saddles the talented and speedy son of Smart Strike for the Derby. Curlin will enter the starting gate with just three career starts and not racing as a 2-year-old. Apollo won the Derby off three starts at 3 in 1882.
Following his maiden win, Curlin scored a 5 1/4-length win in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III), and most recently won the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) by a smashing 10 1/4 length win April 14 under Asmussen's care.
The trainer said Curlin exited the Arkansas Derby in good order, and he is scheduled to work at Keeneland April 23 before shipping to Churchill Downs the following day. Asmussen sent Curlin to the Keeneland Polytrack for a morning gallop April 18.
"He's an excellent young horse and it is exciting to be going into the Derby with someone like him in my barn," Asmussen said. "This is a good time."
Curlin's recent performances have helped to put Asmussen at ease following the loss of Tiz Wonderful. In fact, the trainer said the two sophomore colts are very similar. "The way they both go about their training is very similar," he said. "They just do what you are asking for and they do it with less energy and effort than most do."
Asked if he knew Curlin was setting on such a jaw-dropping performance in the Arkansas Derby, Asmussen said, "He ran very impressive in the Rebel and we felt like he had moved forward, and his performance in the Derby was indicative of just how much he has moved forward. I was very pleased."
Asmussen keeps it simple when defining why Curlin has been such a dominant force in this two Kentucky Derby prep races. "He is just faster than everybody else."
Bred in Kentucky by Fares Farm, Curlin is out of the Deputy Minister mare Sherriff's Deputy. He has earned $802,800.
Curlin will not be the only starter to represent the Asmussen stable on the First Saturday in May. The trainer will also saddle Zanjero, who finished third in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) on the same day as the Arkansas Derby. The son of Cherokee Run is owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds.
Zanjero is scheduled to work April 23 at Keeneland and will ship to Churchill Downs the following day with Curlin.