The Steve Assmussen-trained 3-year-old son of Smart Strike has won his three lifetime starts by a combined 28 1/2 lengths. His win Saturday at odds of 4-5, accomplished in a time of 1:50 for the 1 1/8-mile distance on a fast track, had to be his most impressive.
"I'd be very surprised if he wasn't the favorite going in," Asmussen said. "He's beating them easy, and everybody loves that."
Given a confident ride by Robby Albarado, Curlin sat back in second or third through the first half of the race as Deadly Dealer, breaking from the outside of the nine-horse field, set a realistic pace under John Velazquez. Trailing the pacesetter by about three lengths as they rounded the far turn, Curlin began a relentless attack to collar Deadly Dealer. Curlin seemed to kick clear effortlessly in the stretch and in the final furlong he was spectacular, improving his advantage by seven lengths while running the final eighth in just under 12 seconds.
"He went around the leader with his ears up and still doing it easily," said Robby Albarado, Curlin's jockey. "I did hit once underhanded just to make sure he was staying focused. I was impressed with how much he had improved between this start and his last one."
As impressive as he was, the question of his competition's caliber in the Arkansas Derby remains. There was only one other graded winner in the field, Officer Rocket, who finished seventh Saturday.
Unbeaten Smarty Jones heard similar criticism after he romped to victory in the 2004 Arkansas Derby but followed that with wins in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I) before suffering his one and only defeat in his final race, the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
Asmussen acknowledged this week that his horse had a lot to prove, but Curlin answered plenty of questions while pulling away down the stretch.
"Running straight to the wire, not drifting out," Asmussen said. "All of those things were what we had hoped for and it happened."
The Arkansas Derby has had some notable winners in recent years, including Smarty Jones in 2004 and Afleet Alex the following year. Both those horses went on to win two legs of the Triple Crown.
Afleet Alex won the Arkansas Derby by eight lengths in 2005, a record that was broken by Curlin.
Storm in May, who fell back on the backstretch after tracking Curlin early for jockey Juan Leyva, rallied along the inside and proved second best -- at odds of 30-1 -- by a half-length over the second choice Deadly Dealer, who drifted out and bumped in the stretch but found his stride again late to hold third.
Deadly Dealer carved fractions of :23 2/5, :47 4/5 and 1:12 3/5 but offered little resistance when Curlin blew by on the second turn.
"He ran as fast and as far as he could today," said Velazquez, Deadly Dealer's jockey. "Never been around two turns and breaking from the outside I thought he gave a good effort."
Were the lightly-raced Curlin to win the Kentucky Derby he would be the first to do so without racing as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882. The last horse to win the Derby with just three prior starts was the filly Regret in 1915.
Curlin earned $600,000 and has now banked $802,800 in his brief career. The chestnut colt, reportedly purchased for $3 million for a partnership that includes Stonestreet Stables, Padua Stables, George Bolton and Midnight Cry Stables, won the 1 1/16-mile Rebel Stakes (gr. III) over the track in his second start March 17 by 5 1/4 lengths. He broke his maiden in his debut at seven furlongs at Gulfstream Park by 12 3/4 lengths Feb. 3.
Fares Farm Inc. bred Curlin, who is out of Sheriff's Deputy, by Deputy Minister, in Kentucky.
He paid $3.60, $3 and $2.40. Storm in May, whose future may be on the turf for trainer Bill Kaplan, returned $12.60 and $6.20 while completing a $59 exacta. Deadly Dealer, making his stakes debut for trainer Todd Pletcher after back-to-back victories, was $3.60 to show.
It was another half-length to the fourth-place finisher Delightful Kiss, Going Ballistic, Flying First Class, Officer Rocket, Slew by Slew and Olympic Chief. For You Reppo scratched.
Before this race, it had been a tough year for favorites in Oaklawn's big 3-year-old races. Hard Spun finished fourth as a 1-2 shot in the Southwest on Feb. 19 for what is his only loss. Flying First Class was the choice in the Rebel on March 17, but he finished eighth.
Curlin ended that trend in dominating fashion.
"It went just like the week did here. He was so good he was scary," Asmussen said. "He was calm and he was patient and he was full of energy when he wanted."