Friday, July 11, 2008
CURLIN TRIES THE TURF WITH PLENTY OF COMPANY
It is a seven-horse field, but there are horses entered to run at Belmont Park in Saturday’s 49th edition of the Grade 1, $500,000 Man o’War Stakes that are among the more accomplished anywhere.
And then there’s Curlin.
The reigning Horse of the Year is trying the grass for the first time in the Man o’War, hoping to make the transition that will set him up for the Prix Foy and, ultimately, the Prix de L’arc de Triomphe at Longchamp Race Course in Paris on October 5.
It is a credit to owner Jess Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen that they are doing their utmost to make Curlin an international star. The 4-year-old Smart Strike colt has been expertly managed, winning each of his last five starts, including three of racing’s biggest events: Belmont Park’s Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Dubai World Cup.
“The perfect plan for us – for me, for Curlin and for everybody associated with him – is to first establish his level of quality on the turf in the Man o’War, and not get ahead of ourselves,” said Asmussen, as Curlin drew post 7 for Saturday. “We have to see if he can compete at the same level. If he can compete at his level on the turf and we get the race that we expect, we will map out how to win the Arc with him. I think that getting him over there immediately and getting him used to going right (on right-handed turns) would be the biggest obstacle that we face. If we establish that he’s as good a horse on the turf as he is on the dirt, then we get him over there and get him relaxed, comfortable and confident, and doing right.”
Curlin’s return to New York has attracted some of racing’s top turf stars, among them Bushwood Stable’s Better Talk Now. The 9-year-old Talkin Man horse won the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Lone Star in 2004 and was beaten a half-length in the 2006 Turf by Red Rocks.
He won the Man o’War in 2005 and will attempt to become the oldest horse to win this race. Yankee Affair (1989), Val’s Prince (1997) and two-time Man o’War winner With Anticipation (2002) all won the Man o’War as 7-year-olds.
Better Talk Now is a fan favorite and a formidable foe. He is also coming into Saturday’s race off an unlucky fifth-place finish in the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap on Belmont Stakes Day, June 7, where he was beaten less than three lengths.
“I have no problem with the ride Ramon (Dominguez) gave him in the Manhattan,” said trainer H. Graham Motion. “He just was unlucky and couldn’t get through. Since then, Better Talk Now has been doing great.
“By now, I know him as well as any horse I’ve ever trained. We try to set up a schedule early in the year and then see how he is doing. We thought about running in the United Nations last week, but felt the timing was better with the Man o’War. We are very excited about being in this race. Every year, all you hear about are the three-year-olds. This is like a throwback race, where you have good older horses competing. Better Talk Now has never ducked anyone and he is too old to start now. I am looking forward to running and hope that each horse runs his race. To me, this is very exciting. Not only do we face Curlin, but we get a chance at Red Rocks again for what he did to us in the Breeders’ Cup.”
Motion is referring to the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs, where Red Rocks beat him by a half-length.
J. Paul Reddam’s Red Rocks, an Irish-bred, will sport blinkers for the Man o’War. He left quarantine at Aqueduct Thursday and arrived at Mark Hennig’s barn at 4 p.m. Trainer Brian Meehan was expected Thursday night.
Trainer Robert Ribaudo is also excited about the Man o’War, where he will run Marc Keller’s Grand Couturier. The 5-year-old Grand Lodge horse gave Ribaudo his first Grade 1 victory when he won Saratoga’s Sword Dancer Invitational last summer.
“Grand Couturier is doing well,” said trainer Bobby Ribaudo. “He’s had some ankle issues, so we have to take the races as they come. Our goal this year was to get back to the Sword Dancer. We didn’t bring him back until June, and we got a really good race from him, even though he didn’t win.
“He was doing so good that we decided to run in the Man o’War. This now gives him a nice progression going from a mile and a quarter to a mile and three furlongs to a mile and a half in the Sword Dancer, which I believe is his best distance.”
Jockey Calvin Borel, who won the Sword Dancer last year, will be reunited with Grand Couturier on Saturday, as jockey Garrett Gomez will be in California to ride Colonel John in Hollywood’s Swaps Stakes.
Godolphin Stable’s True Cause was beaten a head by Distorted Reality in the Academy Award, with Grand Couturier third. That effort was good enough to earn the 5-year-old Storm Cat horse a berth in the Man o’War.
Gary A. Tanaka’s Sudan, another Irish-bred, won the Grade 3 Golden Gate Fields Turf on May 31 and Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel likely will be saddling the pacesetter on Saturday.
Mission Approved is another who comes into the Man o’War off a front-running Grade 3 victory. Gary Contessa trains the With Approval colt.
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