This Saturday, the Burial Ground of Champions is welcoming the most talented dirt horse in America. That’s right — Curlin is going to race at Saratoga. The four-year-old chestnut is slated to run in the Grade I $500,000 Woodward Stakes. If he wins the race, Curlin will raise his earnings to $9,796,800, surpassing Skip Away’s record, and have only the mighty Cigar standing in his way of becoming the richest American Thoroughbred in racing history.
It would be fitting for Curlin to surpass Skip Away’s record with a win at the Woodward. The current top two leading money earners both won the Woodward; Skip Away in 1998 and Cigar in 1995 and 1996. But before Curlin starts counting his assets, he has to remember why Saratoga has earned its macabre moniker.
Curlin is no stranger to the historic racetrack. For the past two years he has been stabled here and trained on what some consider to be a hallowed ground. And so while the race looks like an easy conquer for the 3-5 favorite, lest we forget how the legendary Secretariat fell from grace in this very same race? Yes, even a creature evoking an image of godliness can prove to be mortal. Saratoga was also the sight for the great Man o’ War’s sole defeat — by a horse named Upset.
Owner Jess Jackson decided to return Curlin to dirt after the 2007 Horse of the Year didn’t exceed their expectations in his turf debut, losing to Breeder’s Cup Turf winner Red Rocks. The plans for a European turf campaign have been dropped, but what does that mean for the rest of Curlin’s year? As of this article, the champ’s fall plans are completely unknown. If it were up to the connections of Big Brown, Curlin would be pointed toward the Breeder’s Cup Classic at Santa Anita.
Two weeks ago, a bizarre bantering of offers went back and forth between camp Big Brown and camp Curlin on how to get the two horses in the same race. It all started with Brownie’s trainer, Big-Mouth Dutrow, spewing off a remark that claimed Big Brown was “way better” than Curlin, sighting losing to the champion Rags to Riches in the Belmont as one note of proof. In response, Jess Jackson offered to donate $50,000 of charity money to the Belmont Child Care Association, Anna House, if Big Brown would run in the Woodward against Curlin. Co-owner of IEAH Stables, Mike Iavarone, sent Jackson a counter offer of $250,000 to charity if Curlin would run against Big Brown in the Breeder’s Cup. That wasn’t the end of the counter-offerings, and the soap opera basically ended with neither party being able to agree on a race that would fit either horse’s schedule.
The bottom line is, Big Brown has a lot to prove since his Black Belmont. He is slated to run on turf next at Monmouth on September 13th. His connections are babying the Kentucky Derby winner’s feet, and he will likely never run on dirt again before he is retired. Curlin, on the other hand, placed second in his lone turf start; therefore his connections are probably wary of running him on synthetics, a surface which favors turf-loving horses. Camp Big Brown knows this and would like to tackle Curlin on a surface which may favor their Derby winner. And it spins on and on.
The last chance these two have to possibly cross paths is in the $500,000 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on November 28, a month after the Breeder’s Cup. Though neither party has completely ruled it out, Curlin’s connections are still up in the air as far as deciding where the Horse of the Year will run next. Curlin needs a big race if he wants to add a cherry on top of 2008. Though a single race should not be the deciding factor on who wins the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year, it would be a shame if the two most popular horses in America failed to face each other at least once before one of them is retired.
The rivalry between Curlin and Big Brown on paper and between their connections has become a greater dragon than the rivalry between the two flesh and blood horses. The Woodward this Saturday will not only set the bar for Curlin’s monetary earnings, but also dictate where he will be pointed next. Here’s hoping Jess Jackson takes the next step in his dedication to the sport and lets the fans have what they really want—a match up between two strangers, the 2008 Kentucky Derby winner and the 2007 Horse of the Year.