It's over. Time to take a long, reflective breath. Many images come to mind. Like life, not all are good. Next year: Silver Anniversary of Breeders' Cup. Hello Santa Anita! Back to the Golden State, where it all began.
However, doesn't it seem like the brush fires will never stop? Hopefully, the Deity pushes this weekend's anticipated Santa Ana winds back where they come from.
Next up: Kentucky Derby, 188 days from this posting. And counting.
Curlin: From Day One, A Champion
But we believe it's not how fast you run, but how you run fast. Aside from drifting perceptibly through the stretch in his rapidly run, albeit verdant debut last February at Gulfstream Park, he always knew how to be a racehorse, how to distribute his energy evenly and efficiently.
From maiden winner, to two-turn Grade 3 winner, to 10-length G2 winner, he showed something else in that third start; a tremendous stride, athleticism, and balance. So smooth was his action as he approached the half-mile pole at Oaklawn Park that he did what future great runners do; lower his body and lengthen his stride. So balanced, it appeared one could have placed a glass of water on his back and never spilled a drop.
With little experience and facing a gang of 19 rivals, Curlin was an excellent third in the Derby. Next time he snatched victory from defeat's jaws with a Preakness stretch run for the ages. After a head-bobbing Belmont defeat and an unhappy Haskell third, he humbled the country's best older horse in the Jockey Club Gold Cup before his record-equaling Horse of the Year performance.
Not only did he settle the issue of superiority among the elite sophomore class and the handicap division's best, but he avenged his only disappointing loss in a first ever sloppy-track appearance. In a game that keeps teaching, his effort was illuminating. Apparently, when it comes to an ability to handle certain tracks, slop trumps surface. This time there was no jumping up and down over the Monmouth track, only long, ground devouring strides.
Asmussen: A Nafzger Like Performance
You might think Carl Nafzger spent his entire year--from the 2006 Breeders' Cup Juvenile to the 2007 Classic--training Street Sense toward a Horse of the Year championship. He made it all the way to the quarter-pole at Monmouth Park, where Curlin left those aspirations mired in a sea of slop.
While the media, myself included, spent much of the year god-ding up Nafzger, Asmussen was doled out considerably shorter shrift, perhaps owing to his less than ebullient personality. Sometimes, he was overtly chippy, especially when the subject of his medication suspension was broached. But his work with Curlin was no less impressive than Nafzger's with Street Sense.
He sent him to the Haskell, virtually without a break following the Triple Crown, to give him a taste of the Monmouth ova, which the colt found distasteful that sultry afternoon at the shore. Undeterred, Asmussen tightened the screws at Saratoga's Oklahoma training track, giving Curlin weekly stamina works that had him fit for his first meeting with elders in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. At the five-furlong pole on the wide expanse of the Belmont backstretch, he looked every part the JCGC winner.
Showing confidence, Asmussen forsook Saratoga and shipped Curlin to Keeneland where he had been happy with his colt's Derby preparation. Curlin responded with his most impressive victory, possibly only the Preakness notwithstanding. As far as the 2008 classics are concerned, his two juvenile colts finished second and third to an undefeated champion last Saturday. It appears the prodigious Mr. Asmussen is about to raise a high profile even higher.
Midnight Lute: A Great Sprinter
Until Curlin's Horse of the Year tour de force, the performance of the day irrefutably belonged to Midnight Lute. Huge, we believed this monster would be compromised by his inside draw in a large field, especially while turning back from seven furlongs to six. The dynamics between six and seven furlongs are subtle, but very much real. And we were right about all of it. So what?
Getting away last of 10 from post two, and while I prepared to collect a win wager on Idiot Proof, Midnight Lute began circling the group. He settled into full stride in upper stretch then gobbled up the goo, and Idiot Proof, to win going away like a runaway train. It's a wonder Garrett Gomez was able to pull him up at all.
Calvin: Live By Bo-rail, Die By Bo-Rail
Never would Street Sense have beaten Curlin under any Classic scenario, but horses were tiring on the fence all day. And it became clear midway down the Classic backstretch that winning rider Robby Albarado was keeping a close eye on his close friend and fellow Cajun. When Street Sense began his move on the fence, Curlin matched strides with him all the way to headstretch, where Curlin kept going but Street Sense flattened out.
Doubtlessly, Calvin's ground saving tack cost Street Sense third money to a wide-rally Awesome Gem. Perhaps it even cost him the place. Or perhaps that Tuesday work was a bit too brilliant. Whatever it was, Street Sense didn't finish like he had in every start from last year's Juvenile forward. Most accomplished all season long, Street Sense just wasn't there in his career finale. In that context, he deserved better fortune in the Classic.
Let Him Run, Jess:
No one we can think of has come as far as fast in this game than has Jess Jackson, principal owner of Curlin. The struggle for the 77-year-old Jackson now is weighing his considerable business acumen against his love for the game. And it is unknown what effect the fate of two of the colt's felonious owners or input from Satish Sanan will have on the decision to race Curlin at four.
Right now, Curlin is a very good racehorse, an equine athlete that might be one of the game's all-time legendary performers. But he cannot yet be called great in a classic sense. The body of work is just not there. He didn't even race as a two-year-old. His campaign, the totality of his career, is nine months long. Never out of the money with six career victories, all of them graded, four of them Grade 1, he's run only nine times.
The right business decision is to retire the protem Horse of the Year safe and sound. As he's demonstrated all year, Curlin's bred for speed and power. His insurance premiums probably could feed some third world country. His handlers can demand outrageous stud fees and still fill his book. Jackson has made enough money in business to last several lifetimes. But he and his partners may never get a chance to race one like this again.
Breeders' Cup Bets N' Pieces:
Did the wet conditions skew the results? No, we got two worthy juvenile champions and a legendary sprint performer in the slop. And yes, because Dylan Thomas is much better than that... Shame on Patrick Biancone, a victim "tried and found guilty by the press." But the man who's been found guilty of medication violations on three continents had the nerve to show his face on the Monmouth backstretch, violating the spirit of his plea agreement. Props to Monmouth officials who asked him to leave... To no one's surprise, Breeders' Cup president Greg Avioli termed the two-day event a success. I will say this: After Friday's start, I found my anticipation for Saturday's races heightened.
Horses that prepped in New York won seven of Saturday's eight events. That won't happen in 2008 because of Cushion Track. And look for heightened European interest given that synthetic surface. So how did Polytrack preps play on a Breeders' Cup day? Still don't know, given the sloppy conditions. One word best described the community buzz surrounding New Jersey's first national thoroughbred event: Proud. The Equibase web-site got over a half-million visits on Breeders' Cup Friday and Saturday. Troubled industry, take heart.