Smile Politely

Curlin: Racing to History Part 2

Winner of the Breeder’s Cup Classic, the Preakness Stakes, the Dubai World Cup and named the 2007 Horse of the Year, Curlin was a horse I had followed since before the 2007 Kentucky Derby. He dazzled in his first three races of his career, winning by a combined margin of 27.5 lengths. I never root against a Kentucky Derby winner as a rule, but after Curlin didn’t win the Derby, I couldn’t stand to see him beaten again, and he got his revenge from Street Sense by a nose in the Preakness. And even in the Belmont, with the most talented filly I may ever see, a little part of me still edged in Curlin’s favor, where he was out-nosed by Rags to Riches to the wire.

He ended up punctuating his greatness to the rest of the three-year-olds that year when he won the Breeder’s Cup Classic in the slop by 4.5 lengths and broke the track record. And most recently, he had run in Dubai, winning the Jaguar Cup and the world’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup, by a record-setting victory margin of 7.75 lengths.

There are other ways to become great than winning the Triple Crown, and luckily, Curlin’s primary owner, Jess Jackson, recognized that. Instead of retiring Curlin to stud and making a truckload of easy money, the longtime racing fan decided to give the people what they wanted — a hero to root for. Having lived through the glory days of horse racing himself, Jackson wanted to give the rest of the world the opportunity to witness a spectacular horse, and so he decided to keep Curlin racing through his four-year-old year. It was a major risk, but it has certainly paid off.

As he stands currently, Curlin is horse racing’s third leading money-winner of all time, behind only Skip Away and the indomitable Cigar. Jess Jackson doesn’t exactly need the money, but he has a scope for high stakes — namely, graded stakes. The owner is entering Curlin in any race with good enough competition, and that means potentially trying him out on turf and spreading his domination to the UK in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fr-1), a race no American horse has ever won.

If Curlin succeeds on grass, he would surely be considered one of the top 10 horses since Affirmed. And if he was to win the Arc, Curlin’s name would be lifted onto the list of top thoroughbreds of all time.

Fast-forward to June 14th, 2008: Churchill Downs. Stephen Foster Super Saturday. I am buzzed from seeing Pyro win his comeback race in the Northern Dancer Stakes, beating former Kentucky Derby competitors like he should’ve done in May. It’s been a day full of good fortune, and the biggest race hasn’t even begun.

I hear someone say, “Here they come!” and I look over and see the horses being led from the barn to the paddock along the storied track. I can see my boy from a quarter-mile away. He is unmistakable.

The crowd gives Curlin a hero’s welcome, cheering and whooping him before he has even been saddled. And as he walks so serenely past us, I hear fans ooh and ahh over that amazing coat of gold. When his trainer, Steve Asmussen, walks by us with an unmistakable smirk on his face, I find myself saying aloud, “It’s in the bag, Steve.” Unlike some trainers, Asmussen doesn’t make promises on his horses winning any races. But that smile is confidence enough for me. I know I’m holding a winning ticket in my hand.

It’s the first time I’m seeing Curlin race in person, but I don’t have the fear in my heart that my presence will jinx him like it seems to have done for other horses in previous races. This is a horse you can count on. When you set out to watch Curlin race, you know he is going to race his heart out for you.

When the horses burst out of the starting gate, the field seems to be eager to pin in the champ, which is the only way they figure he can be beaten. Good call on their part. Tension rises as Curlin is boxed in going into the first turn. Visions of Big Brown going rank in the Belmont flash through my mind, but this is not the same horse. This is a whole different kind of horse. Can you keep a superhorse bottled up?

The answer: can you hold a lion in a shoebox?

Stuffed into a pocket until the final turn, Curlin sees the opportunity to slip between horses as the field turns for home. There is no second guessing what will happen in that moment. In a wave, the grandstands of Churchill begin to roar as the horses stretch out in their final bid.

Curlin cruises alongside Barcola, the hapless leader, and looks him in the eye before blowing dust in the horse’s face like a kiss goodbye.

I join in the cheering, maybe a little too exuberantly, as I see that living gold open up from the rest of the field. Curlin zooms past us and the finish line, ears asking, “Well, shall we have another go around?”

Even the weight can’t keep this boy down. Spotting the rest of the field 10–15 pounds, Curlin waltzed in his rebound from Dubai, his homecoming to the U.S. as world champion. What a parade it was.

Winning the Stephen Foster by 4.25 lengths, Curlin is in the middle of a winning streak that is now at five in a row. He is nine for twelve races, and has never finished out of the money. With an upcoming first start on the turf, the chestnut colt is aiming to follow in the hoofsteps of legends like Secretariat, whose last two starts were on the turf just to show off his versatility.

Everywhere he goes nowadays, Curlin is showing off. As this may be the last year we are lucky enough to see him race, I hope we get to see him strut right into the record books. As it looks now, he already has his reservation.

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