Saratoga Springs, NY, September 10, 2008--“It’s the Classic, babe. That’s where you have to go to win a championship.”

Those were the words of trainer Rick Dutrow when he was asked by the Bloodhorse whether the Breeders’ Cup Turf ever was under consideration after Big Brown had an impressive final workout for Saturday’s Monmouth Stakes, his first start against older horses.

Entries for the purse enhanced grass race will be taken Thursday morning and it’s not expected to be a large field. Win or lose--and the Derby/Preakness hero is expected and supposed to win--the race clearly is a bridge to the Breeders’ Cup’s first synthetic track Classic.

Just like presidential candidates who get a bounce from a favorable statement du jour, so might Dutrow, insofar as the Horse of the Year title is concerned. To wit:

Consider a scenario whereby Big Brown and reigning Horse of the Year Curlin run the table in their next two starts. For the former, that means Saturday’s race and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But for the latter it’s the Jockey Club Gold Cup, then what? And that becomes the Horse of the Year question.
Everyone knows and agrees how sporting it was for Jess Jackson to keep his horse racing at 4. The purses, no matter how large, hardly can keep pace with the insurance premiums. But it isn’t about the money, Jackson has said, it’s about Curlin’s place in history.

Toward that end, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was under serious consideration until the Man o’ War happened and those plans were dashed. Then there was talk of the Japan Cup in December with its humongous purse and dirt surface. All this because Curlin’s connections (read Steve Asmussen) doesn’t want to run Curlin on a synthetic surface.

This apparently stems from Curlin’s experience with Polytrack when preparing for the 2007 Kentucky Derby at Keeneland. But he’s was a young and quite inexperienced then and is a big, bruising four-year-old now. Then there’s the matter of his apparently being a slow learner, how he’s much better the second time he does anything.

Recently there has been some speculation, engendered by Curlin’s people when they failed to completely shut the door on a possible Classic run, that the Horse of the Year will seek a Classic repeat, which certainly wouldn’t hurt Curlin’s legacy. Been there, done that, is not a suitable explanation.

Given that Asmussen sent Curlin half way across the world to get a prep for the Dubai World Cup, you would think that if the Classic were a real possibility, Curlin would be racing in Santa Anita’s Goodwood and not Belmont Park’s Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 27.

Like a presidential candidate, Jackson said the JCGC decision was payback for the great support New York racing and its fans displayed during the run-up to and in the days following the Woodward Stakes. Curlin loves Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track and, therefore, they’re just happy to stay here.

There’s been talk on both sides that there could be racing life after the Breeders’ Cup, but it might be just talk. Economically, keeping both horses in training after October 25 makes little sense with the potential downside far outweighing the potential upside. But not if a Horse of the Year championship is at issue.

We’ve stated this a million times. A Horse of the Year can be anything. It can be the horse that compiles the most impressive resume on the racetrack, period, or a blend of racing accomplishment and favorable impact on the sport.

In terms of resume, it’s defending champion Curlin in front. But don’t underestimate a dual classics winner (read Kentucky Derby) that, at the moment, owns one more Grade 1 title this year than does his only adversary.

While it’s acceptable that Big Brown has beaten up on an undistinguished three-year-old class, it must be noted, too, that, the Dubai World Cup notwithstanding, Curlin’s other Grade 1s were defeats of a grass specialist (Einstein) in the Stephen Foster and a secondary-allowances winner (Past the Point) at Saratoga. Either way, a case can be made.

As in the 2008 presidential campaign, the narrative has changed. The incumbent party, concerned with his legacy, apparently won’t take the Breeders’ Cup challenge because of a prior experience with an artificial surface. Of course, he might not “have to” run.

Further, the Horse of the Year title is determined by voters and, like this presidential election, may devolve into a popularity contest, the issues be damned. Right now, Dutrow and Michael Iavarone are odds-on to lose a popularity contest to Jess Jackson.

But here’s the only way this Horse of the Year voter can look at the 2008 Classic. This is not about Curlin’s legacy or his perceived ineffectiveness over artificial surfaces. Champions overcome adversity. The Classic is, after all, Big Brown’s synthetic debut as well.

Since the Classic has been on the three-year-old’s dance card since before his Belmont debacle, if the reigning four-year-old Horse of the Year doesn’t meet Big Brown for all the marbles on what clearly is, for both, neutral ground, then he’s the one who’s ducking a challenge.

So, will be it about the issue of their records, or will it be about the perception of which is the better horse? Can’t have it both ways, babe.