The chestnut colt took the track at Gulfstream Park in February in a typically loaded special-weight maiden sprint for three-year-olds at seven furlongs, and the workout whisperers were betting him down to 5-2.
Didn’t these people know there were two horses with excellent form in the field, one with experience at the distance, and that his inside draw didn’t figure to help him?
Then Curlin went out and blew their doors off, by almost 13 lengths, in fast time while bearing out the length of the stretch.
Too bad. The way he was getting out down the lane, he’ll never last, I was thinking. What, he’s been sold? For how much? Like Discreet Cat, off one race? Are these people, nuts?
No. I was.
And just like that Helen Pitts was out, Steve Asmussen was in, and the rich got richer.
Why should racing be different?
But they would get their comeuppance, I was certain. Imagine, a Grade 3 two-turner, at a different track, bearing out the length of the stretch in his only sprint start. What are these people, nuts?
No. I was.
Curlin used that Rebel Stakes as a bridge to the G2 Arkansas Derby. But this would be different for sure. The waters are a lot deeper now. And this time it’s nine furlongs. Are these people nuts?
No. It was me.
Curlin won the Arkansas Derby by nearly 11 and his action was flawless. Watching Robbie Albarado partner him down the backstretch, the colt appeared so fluid it looked like he could have balanced a glass of water on his back.
But an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby? Are these people crazy?
If they were, not by much. By only 10 cents on the dollar: Street Sense; 4.90-1. Curlin; 5.00-1
But serious Derby contender in his fourth lifetime start? Crazy, right?
Again, not by much. Third by eight, behind Street Sense and Hard Spun, after being steadied early and rallying wide into the stretch.
Lost in Street Sense’s winning rally, from 19th of 20 on the backstretch to first, was the fact Curlin was 14th when Street Sense was 17th at the six-furlong pole.
The Derby may be a hell of a spot to get an education but I guess it’s true what they say about whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Certainly, the speed was there, the talent, too, and in the Preakness Curlin would prove that class was there as well.
Calvin Borel saved just as much ground in Baltimore as he did on Street Sense in Louisville. He opened a momentum-building length and a half advantage leaving the three-sixteenths pole. Elmont, here we come.
Wait, here comes Curlin! Wasn’t he left for dead at headstretch? Then Street Sense did what he always does after striking the front: He waited. Curlin‘s still coming.
Here comes Street Sense to re-engage. Ding-dong. Ding-dong. Photo finish. Bye-bye Elmont. Bye-bye Triple Crown. Back home to Churchill.
Now it’s Curlin’s time, to live up to all that ability, to all that promise. Hello filly.
The Belmont Stakes loss was no disgrace. Far from it. Another head to head battle for the ages. Another photo finish, one that didn’t serve a loser.
But, no. Not this time.
Trainer Steve Asmussen didn’t lose heart. In fact, quite the opposite. He spoke of Curlin in glowing terms, even in defeat. His confidence was bordering on the arrogant.
As if Curlin didn’t lose that photo. As if Curlin weren’t at least a little fortunate to win that picture in Maryland.
All’s well that ends, however. Time to freshen, recharge the batteries, get ready for the Haskell. It’s not often you get a chance to get the feel of the Breeders’ Cup track for a million bucks.
But this is racing where, on any given Saturday, they all get beat.
Curiously, with his third place Haskell finish, Curlin seemed to lose support. It’s not as if he wasn’t on the sidelines a few months, coming from a mile and a half marathon three weeks after the Preakness gut-wrencher, and meeting a sharper speed rival on a speed-kind oval.
So as quickly as he became a star he’s become the forgotten Triple Crown performer. Even to the point of being disrespected. Maybe it’s because he’s only won once against the division’s best. Maybe it’s because his trainer’s been a little cheeky.
“I’m not sure why everybody has given up on him,” said Todd Pletcher this week. Pletcher will saddle favorite Lawyer Ron against Curlin in Sunday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup. “[The Haskell] was his first race back. It was a good third in my opinion.”
But it was jockey Robbie Albarado’s post-Haskell comments that were, well, puzzling. “He felt good,” he said post-race. “Steve does a great job getting this horse ready but [Curlin] just couldn’t get it done today. He may have needed a rest today, but he’ll bounce back and be fine.”
He felt good but may have needed a rest today? Unless it was a misquote, what did that mean?
If he needed a rest after coming off a rest, how is that a good thing?
Typical of any trainer with a losing favorite, Asmussen was defensive of his stable star, as in we’re proud of him, wouldn’t trade places with anyone, etc., etc.
Hard to think that Curlin can beat Lawyer Ron on Sunday, who is older, faster, and owns a recent conditioning edge on the Preakness hero. And Asmussen knows that a Classic victory is Curlin’s only chance for post-season honors. Not all screws will be fastened tightly.
But to get his favorable reputation back, Curlin must run well, look like a horse that will benefit from his race to emerge a viable Classic contender next month.
“I expect him to run a good race Saturday, [sic]” said Pletcher, rival trainer and still Curlin fan. “I’d be cautious to say anything negative about what Curlin has done, or will do in the future.”