OCEANPORT, N.J. - The 2007 Horse of the Year did not start in 2006. From Feb. 3 to Oct. 27, Curlin put together one of the more amazing seasons in racing history. And the colt saved his best race for last.
When the field hit the stretch of Saturday's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Monmouth Park, it was down to three horses . . . Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, Preakness winner Curlin and Hard Spun, the colt that kept trying to outrun both of them all year long.
Hard Spun was in his customary spot in front. Curlin and Street Sense had been together the whole race, Curlin on the outside and Street Sense in his favorite spot along the rail. The stage was set for a Classic finish as Curlin and Street Sense were closing fast.
Curlin altered the script. There would be no photos. There would be domination. Curlin ran away from Street Sense and ran by Hard Spun, winning by 4 1/2 lengths, running the mile and a quarter in 2:00.59, making the quite sloppy surface look very fast, earning a Beyer figure of 119 and running his final quarter-mile in 24.3 seconds. Hard Spun easily held second. Street Sense tired in the stretch and finished fourth, a length behind Awesome Gem.
Street Sense, despite wining the Derby and Travers, would get no year-end awards, no Horse of the Year, no 3-year-old champion. The Derby winner and Hard Spun will head off to Darley stud in Kentucky to get ready for stallion careers. Curlin will get all the awards. One can only hope he will race on in 2008, but it is only a hope, given the big money in the breeding world.
In nine 2007 races, Curlin broke his maiden by 12 3/4 lengths, was sold privately for many millions, won the Rebel Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths, the Arkansas Derby by 10 1/2 lengths, finished third in the Derby when he wasn't quite ready for the big field, ran down Street Sense in the Preakness, was barely beaten by the filly Rags to Riches in the Belmont Stakes, finished third in the Haskell, ran down top older horse Lawyer Ron in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and then blew away the best field assembled in 2007.
Add it all up and it was $5.1 million in purses and who knows how much for stallion rights, certainly more than whatever his three new owners paid for 80 percent of the horse back in February.
What Curlin did is unprecedented in modern American racing. Horses simply do not accomplish all this without some 2-year-old racing foundation. But Curlin did it and, apparently, just now is peaking.
"To accomplish what he's accomplished in the length of time that he has to get to this level, he's different in many ways," trainer Steve Asmussen said.
Curlin is a great big horse with long, powerful strides. When the colt starts rolling, he is a semi coming down a mountain without brakes.
Jess Jackson, one of the colt's owners, got a bit carried away when he said Curlin, "with Robby [Albarado] on board and Steve training, I'm sure that we can prove that he's one of the best in the last century or half-century."
He could be right, of course. But we will only know if the colt keeps racing.
"We are all seriously dedicated to the health of the horse, so the horse will tell us what we'll do in the future," Jackson said.
It is more likely the money will tell them what to do.
"There's an inner quarrel with me," Jackson said. "Inside cerebrally, I'm saying, here is a horse that can help change the direction of breeding in America, maybe the world. For stamina, size, coupled with the speed he has and the power, and he's learning to be more graceful on the turns; he is an exceptional horse.
"So on the one part I'm saying, as a breeder, I'd love to have the American breed grade upward with distance, durability, power and speed that Curlin represents.
"On the other hand, I'm a racing fan. I've always been a handicapper. I love to see the tried and true come back and back and back I'd love to see him race again. We'll see what happens. It is a financial game."
In the Derby, it was Street Sense, Hard Spun, Curlin. In the Classic, it was Curlin, Hard Spun, Street Sense. In horse racing, 6 months is forever. Nothing stays the same.
This was a wonderful group of 3-year-olds, their talent, their consistency and their durability. They were running hard in May and running hard in October. By the championship day, Curlin had separated from the pack.
Saturday's crowd (41,781) and handle were held down by the weather. It wasn't until late afternoon that the sun broke through. Despite the slop and the bog-like grass course, most of the results made sense. Big name trainers won all eight BC races.
Prior to 2007, recent Triple Crown races had been won by semi-anonymous, if very talented trainers. What used to be the province of D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert and Nick Zito had been ceded to others. Well, Zito and Baffert are back.
Zito's War Pass dominated the Juvenile with his early speed, just as Baffert's Indian Blessing dominated the Juvenile Fillies. The colt ran 2 seconds faster than the filly and earned an amazing Beyer figure of 113, better than Street Sense got for winning the Derby.
Sometimes, horses will run off the charts on sloppy tracks and then return to normal. Whatever, War Pass has never been behind a horse in his four starts. Indian Blessing is 3-for-3.
"He's going to get a long rest now and we're going to do everything we can come Derby Day that he can get that mile and a quarter," Zito said of War Pass.
A son of Cherokee Run, Was Pass' pedigree might not suggest classic distances.
"He has tons and tons of talent," Zito said. "I'd have to say he's as good as anything I've ever touched."
Baffert also won the Sprint when Midnight Lute unleashed one of the great rallies in BC history. A-list trainers Kiaran McLaughlin, Rick Dutrow, Bobby Frankel and Todd Pletcher who finally broke through when English Channel turned the Turf into a one-horse race, won the other four races.
Jockey Garrett Gomez, who should be a cinch for the Eclipse Award, won with his first four mounts, two undercard stakes and two BC races.
In the end, though, this was about Curlin, unknown outside of his stable on the first Saturday of February, Horse of the Year by the last Saturday in October. *