Smile Politely

Curlin at the Crossroads

The thing about the plan was, Asmussen said Curlin had to “look much the best” in his effort in the Man o’ War Stakes on July 12th. As he finished a well-beaten second, calling Curlin “much the best” wouldn’t be accurate, though he was anything but shabby for his first start on turf. So, the question is, what now? Should the turf campaign continue for the 2007 Horse of the Year, or should the champ go back to the well-trod dirt? Before we jump to make the decision for majority owner Jess Jackson, let’s weigh the facts.

Asmussen has said Curlin has a habit of performing better on a track the second time he starts on it. If this is the case, could he win a second time around on the Belmont turf? Let’s look at another factor that may have contributed to a less than Curlin-esque performance in the Man o’ War.

First of all, Curlin reportedly ran into the side of the starting gate in the break. Though there hasn’t been any reports of him receiving an injury from the bad break, the impact definitely would have knocked the wind out of him before the race even began. How would you feel if you ran into the side of a truck before running a marathon?

Second, he worked out only once on grass before the race — on a surface he’d never run on before, and then was worked over the dirt again before race day. Now I admittedly know less about training a horse than I know about what it’s like to be a vegetarian, but I am speculating this is a little unusual protocol for a horse who’s never raced on grass before. Is it possible, on Curlin’s walk over Belmont’s dirt track to make his way to the turf course, the change in scenery confused him? Whatever the case, Curlin’s connections claimed he did not have the telltale “kick” in the Man o’ War that he has used to bury his opponents in his previous five races. Turf races aren’t like dirt races in that respect, anyway. Shouldn’t they have been expecting the lack of footing for the rocket to launch and kept Curlin more forwardly placed?

I’m not making up excuses here, but speculating on what to make of the Man o’ War. Jess Jackson is so perplexed, he’s asking for input from Curlin’s fans. If you think you’ve got the best idea on what direction the champ should lean toward, cast your vote in a poll to decide whether or not the champ should continue to race on turf, go back to dirt, try the synthetics, or be retired. You vote retire, and I swear I’ll come after you while you sleep.

As for my vote, I’m about as perplexed as Jackson. Curlin wasn’t beaten by a schmuck, unless you consider a Breeder’s Cup winner to be such. But Red Rocks is considered only a “B” level horse over in the UK, his home turf. If Curlin can’t catch the Brits over here, who’s to say he can catch the Frenchies over there? Add in the factor our American boy would have to learn to run counter-clockwise and deal with an uneven track, and it’s a whole new world. Curlin is a worldwide superhorse on dirt; that’s been proven, so does it really matter that he conquers the grass, as well? Sure, it’s ambitious, but should his connections risk his credibility for history? There are other worldwide dirt races to be conquered, and other horses, for that matter.

Japanese races are mostly held on turf, but they feature a few on dirt, including the $2 million Grade I Japan Cup Dirt. The race is held on December 7, giving Curlin enough time to finish off his American campaign winning a second Breeder’s Cup Classic. Alright, so maybe I’m dreaming. He would have to be held in quarantine for a while before stepping foot on Japanese soil, after all. But let’s look at the Breeder’s Cup Classic. There’s a reason for Curlin’s connections to consider this race.

The field for the Breeder’s Cup Classic is looking ever-bleak and we are in desperate need of a race to be made. Remember the Triple Crown trail, when trainer Rick Dutrow was saying how a match up with Big Brown against Curlin would make for a less than happy time for Curlin’s connections? Well, Dutrow hasn’t made a peep about a potential match-up since the Belmont, but that doesn’t mean the discussion on the subject should be closed. If you toss out the Belmont (which should be done, in this writer’s opinion), Big Brown is the best horse being pointed toward the classic. Actually, even with his bleak finish in New York, he’s still far superior to other potential contenders. Come on, really? Are we talking Tres Borrachos, here? So why not point Curlin head-to-head against Big Brown, after the Derby winner makes his comeback in the Haskell on August 3rd? It would be both horses’ first start on synthetics, unless they would opt to prepare in California beforehand. Conquering the synthetics has proven to be a feat in itself, so it would only be fair that both champs should meet on even terms.

My wishlist for Curlin is as follows: one more start on turf, in the Arlington Million. If he wins impressively at Arlington, then send him to France and give him a prep race overseas before the Arc. If Curlin doesn’t seem to take to the turf the second time around, let him go back to the dirt and finish out America’s greatest stakes races before trying synthetics for the first time.

After the Arlington Million, send him to Saratoga for the Woodward Stakes. Then, either on to a repeat victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, or a race on synthetics to prep in California. After that, send him to the Breeder’s Cup Classic to face Big Brown and company. And if the timing is right, send him to face the dirt horses in Japan in the Japan Cup Dirt in December.

I’ll admit it: I’m greedy. Part of me doesn’t want Curlin going over to France because I want to see him finish his career, which will likely wrap up by the end of the year, in America. If I got my ultimate wish, Jess Jackson would continue racing the champ through his five-year-old year. Wouldn’t that be something? In a day and age when retiring horses at 3 has become the unfortunate trend, we’re lucky to even have Curlin’s continuing career to debate about at all.

In a game where fewer and fewer older champions are gracing the tracks and proving their abilities, we’ve been blessed to have this caliber of horse to watch for so long. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where he races next; all that matters is that we are fortunate enough to be cheering him on.

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