It was humid and dank on Saturday at Belmont Park, the kind of day local press box wags commonly refer to as an Aqueduct day, an occasion for which the Sun Gods need not apply. “I’ve got news for you,” offered the writer upon not being asked. “The few people who still come out for days like this really love this,” his comment accompanying the whoops and hollers of fans as Curlin’s handler gave him a final turn of the ring before the huge chestnut settled into picture-taking repose.
The people who lined the ring were among those 8,500 who showed up to see Belmont's five Grade 1 events, about half as many as the count registered at Santa Anita. By definition, these races are championship events but, as everyone knows, all Grade 1s, like synthetic tracks, are not created equal.
Tom Durkin tried to make the quest more exciting than it eventually turned out to be, observers never getting a sense that winning the race for Curlin was little more than a perfunctory exercise, a fait accompli. At least that was our feeling when--despite the fact that the slop-loving speedster Wanderin Boy, who makes a habit of finishing second to wonder horses, was setting his own, unpressured pace--Albarado, with six furlongs remaining, reached up and took another hold of his champion. Call it disdainful confidence.
Apparently, the rider had a plan. Opting to ride the champion, but having ridden Mambo in Seattle to a second place Travers finish--a race he “still can’t believe we lost”--Albarado waited for the three-year-old Jockey Club second choice to make his move before asking Curlin to jump into the fray. That point came leaving the five-furlong pole as Mambo in Seattle scooted up the inside, as Curlin now was beginning to unwind from the middle of Belmont's expansive far turn.,
But the sophomore couldn’t sustain his run. Wanderin Boy remained on the lead as Merchant Marine, Allen Jerkens attempting to slay yet another giant, crept closer to the leader. Curlin, in full stride approaching headstretch, straightened out into the stretch six horses wide of the rail. In midstretch, Curlin at once drew even and began to pull away, the eventual second and third finishers struggling to keep pace, and doing just that, courageously. But a final half-mile over the sand and loam in 48 seconds, easily within Curlin’s scope, was enough to convince his two closest rivals to await another day.
On the other side of America, meanwhile, Santa Anita, site of the silver anniversary edition of Breeders’ Cup, was in the midst of its six Grade 1s program--the first time that’s ever happened on a non-Breeders’ Cup card. Cost of Freedom was taking the Ancient Title as one of his West Coast sprint brethren, Black Seventeen, took Belmont’s Vosburgh in the slop because, according to Santa Anita-based trainer Brain Koriner--catch this--”didn’t know the kind of track we would be running over.”
That would be a fast Pro Ride surface, sir, 87 percent dirt and 13 percent whatever, which apparently, like the old Polytrack at old Del Mar, is a different surface in the afternoon than it is for training in the morning. Apparently Koriner preferred to take his chances over a wet Eastern dirt track than a melting West Coast synthetic surface currently having issues.
Trainers would not speak for the record to Daily Racing Form reporter Brad Free for fear of losing stalls, some said. But jockey Rafael Bejarano told his agent that he never “felt this hot” in his whole life. (Isn’t he from South America?) Garrett Gomez, to his credit unafraid to speak his mind, said the difference was like, well, day and night.
GG said, too, that it was his experience that nearly half the horses racing in the afternoon were not getting over the surface well, and those that were winning or money-placed did so because they tolerated it better. Gomez said that if a horse was running one-paced and gradually gained momentum that that was OK, but if you tried to “squeeze them” they’d fall apart.
Track management commented they were satisfied with horse safety concerns and that they would continue to tweak the surface to deal with the afternoon heat which, on the day before the six-Grade 1 card, reached 97 degrees. Of course, it’s hot and dry in SoCal in October, too, a.k.a. brushfire season.
Finally, not long after saying that he would protect Curlin because “the gene pool needs a horse like this,“ word came that Curlin would be on a plane Sunday morning bound for Santa Anita where he will train for a presumed meeting with Big Brown; the synthetic specialist and Goodwood winner Well Armed, and possibly European sensation Duke of Marmalade, among a bevy of other Grade 1 performers that could make this Classic one of the deepest in its history. Obviously, it’s a matchup of the Big Two that racing wants, er, needs, to see.