Curlin, Hard Spun Take Over Center Stage

Curlin, Hard Spun Take Over Center Stage
Photo: Skip Dickstein
With the defection of Street Sense from the Belmont, focus turns to Preakness winner Curlin.
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With the racing world still rocking from the bombshell dropped by Carl Nafzger Thursday morning, all thoughts immediately turned to the two big horses who will remain on their Triple Crown journey and the two trainers who elected to see it through to its conclusion.

Street Sense’s trainer Carl Nafzger said the morning before announcing Street Sense’s withdrawal from the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), “I’m like a duck. I don’t care if we go to the stream; I don’t care if we go to the pond. Just show me which one we’re going to.”

They apparently went to the pond, because the stream is the one that runs.

“I told Churchill when they called, ‘Why the hell don’t we get a press conference going and just do it all at once and get it over with, because there’s going to be a thousand whys and why nots,’” Nafzger said on Wednesday. “This way I can explain the decision, and it’s not going to be hard. I can explain it right now.”

With his explanation already prepared the day before, Nafzger told the world on Thursday that, although Street Sense, with only four starts this year, came out of the Preakness (gr. I) in great shape, he and owner James B. Tafel feel the Travers (gr. I) is their priority, and they do not want to compromise their chances by running in the Belmont, even though it is 2 1/2 months before the Travers.

So, while Street Sense is paddling in the pond on June 9, Curlin and Hard Spun will be splashing around in the stream, with Curlin looking to solidify his claim as the top 3-year-old in the country and frontrunner for the Eclipse Award.

Discussing Street Sense’s departure, Curlin’s trainer Steve Asmussen said on a national teleconference Thursday, “My position might be, be careful what I wish for. I was thinking that he was going to show up, and I’m only finding out now that he’s not. I was fully prepared to run against him, as well as Hard Spun. With him being as a good horse as he is I think I’d rather have met him at Belmont Park than anywhere else. But if Carl felt he belonged there he would have showed up. So I have to respect his decision.”

Larry Jones, trainer of Hard Spun, is happy not having to deal with Street Sense. “I thought it was very kind of Carl to take it easy on us,” he said. “Carl mentioned earlier that there was no longer an incentive to run in all three races.”

Asmussen, who has mixed feelings about the Belmont oval for a horse like Curlin, said he would like to see the horse have a smooth trip early in the race this time. “He didn’t get away real cleanly in his last two races, and was off the bridle early,” he said. “This time, I’d like to see him break cleanly, be on the bridle, and be carrying Robby (Albarado) instead of Robby riding him the whole way."

“I would like to see him on his feet and run the race he did in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II). He could have been on the lead in that if he wanted. The Derby is the Derby and there are so many variables there, but by stumbling in the Preakness it put him back farther back than he would have been. So, just a clean break in the Belmont puts him as close to a horse as you’d want to be in a mile and a half race. I think  the circumference of the racetrack definitely will suit him. I’m just a little worried about how deep and sandy the racetrack can be with a horse as big as he is.”

Asmussen said all the focus now is on the Belmont, and there are no thoughts beyond that. “We’ve put a lot on this horse in a very short period of time and I’m definitely not looking past the Belmont,” he said. “I think the race will be extremely competitive. Hard Spun is a very formidable horse, and with a little different pace scenario he’s going to be hard to beat, and we shouldn’t look past that race.”

Jones said that replacing Mario Pino for Garrett Gomez was a difficult decision, but one he and owner Rick Porter felt had to be made. “Garrett rides Belmont on a regular occasion, and he’ll be very comfortable there. It’s been many years since I’ve ridden Garrett on anything, but we had been together at Oaklawn many years ago. He’s a topnotch rider and a big-money rider, and we just decided to make a one-race change. Mario still rides for us at Delaware and rides for Mr. Porter for his other trainers. It’s a one-race deal, and it’s not to say he won’t be back on Hard Spun later."

“Mario and I are very close friends, and when it was time to break the news to him, of course I did the manly thing and told his agent, and said, ‘Now you go tell him.’ The things is, the night before the Preakness were at Mario and (wife) Christina’s house for supper. So, without a doubt it was a very hard decision to make. But Mario being the gentleman he is, said, ‘Larry, don’t worry about it. We understand and we thank you for the opportunity to be in the Derby and the Preakness, and we have a lot of 2-year-olds coming up.’ So, we all understand that business goes on and we’ll see what happens.”

Without Street Sense, Jones feels it will change the way they look at the race, but not change their strategy.. “Hopefully, we won’t have to ride as close to the rail and keep worrying about having to get a new coat of aluminum on Belmont’s rail when everything’s all done,” he said. “We can kind of be looking a little more to our outside than having to worry about that inside constantly. But with my horse, it’s really not going to affect his him or his style a lot. He’ll be forwardly placed as always, and even without Street Sense you still have to worry about holding off Curlin and the others, so it’s not going to change it a lot for us.”

Jones couldn’t be happier with the way Hard Spun is coming into the Belmont. “Remarkably, he’s coming out of these races very well,” he said. “I’m not saying he’s getting better. It’s going to be hard for both horses coming out of the first two legs to improve in the Belmont, but, hopefully, you can hold your form. And I think we can count on him to do that. He’s eating well, he’s doing well, and, frankly, I don’t know how he could have come out of them better than he has.”

Jones said if Curlin is going to be vulnerable in any way, it could be running a mile and a half. “I said two months ago, that six months from that time we could very well be hailing Curlin as a super horse,” he said. “I feel like he has that potential. He’s a very, very special horse to have reached the plateau of racing he has reached in such a short amount of time. And he could very well continue to improve. The mile and a half, maybe that’s not where he’s going to improve the most. Pedigree-wise, he’s as well equipped as anybody, but he’s a big strong horse, and for those muscles to keep firing going a mile and a half, you never know. He may very well do it, and if he does, I take my hat off to him. But if he does become muscle fatigued it would be understandable.” 

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