Friday, August 29, 2008
HORSE OF THE YEAR CURLIN MAKES SARATOGA DEBUT IN WOODWARD
Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero, Jr., a six-time winner of the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes, put it this way: “The Woodward has been a race that’s always been won by a good horse, and this year will be no different.”
Unless it is won by a great horse.
And that horse just might be Stonestreet Stable’s Curlin, the reigning Horse of the Year, Breeders’ Cup Classic champion and Dubai World Cup hero who is making his historic debut at Saratoga Race Course in Saturday’s 55th running of the $500,000 Woodward at a mile and an eighth..
“One of the great things about (owner) Mr. (Jess) Jackson keeping him in training is being able to run in this race, with its history,” said assistant trainer Scott Blasi of Curlin. “There are only so many opportunities. We’ve never dodged anyone, and we’ve never had one given us – he’s always had to earn it.”
Speaking of earnings, with every start but his first coming in a stakes race, Curlin has amassed a bankroll of $9,496,800, third behind Cigar ($9,999,815) and Skip Away ($9,616,360). A victory in the Woodward would move him up to second at $9,796,800.
At age 3, Curlin went from unraced maiden to Horse of the Year in the space of months, winning the Grade 3 Rebel, the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby, the Grade 1 Preakness, the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic along the way. This year, he won the Jaguar Cup at Nad el Sheba, took the Dubai World Cup by a record 7 ¾ lengths, and returned to win the Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs.
Already having won on two continents, his connections next explored a possible international campaign on turf but backed off when he finished second to Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Red Rocks in the Grade 1 Man o’War at Belmont Park in July.
“The Man o’War was a good race, he made up eight lengths to finish second,” said Blasi. “I’m glad we tried.”
And his fans are glad he’s back on dirt, at least for the time being. Already hailed as the best Thoroughbred in the world, according to rankings by the British racing publication Timeform, Curlin will take on seven in the Woodward, which is included on the resumes of such superstars as Kelso, Forego, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Cigar.
Is Curlin ready to etch his name alongside such champions?
“Curlin’s been a monster since he was a yearling,” said rival trainer Ken McPeek. “If he runs back to his numbers, he’s physically impossible to beat.”
McPeek, who will saddle Loose Leaf in the Woodward, has a most interesting perspective on Curlin. It was McPeek who in 2005 purchased Curlin for an ownership group for a mere $57,000 as a yearling; after he ran off to a nearly 13-length victory in his very first start in February of 2007, he was sold for an estimated $3 million and moved to Asmussen’s barn.
“I wish my name were still next to his,” joked McPeek, who named jockey Eibar Coa aboard Loose Leaf. “But Loose Leaf ran back a huge number coming off a nine-month layoff. We’ll see how close we can get to Curlin. At the worst, we’ll get a check out of it.”
The Timeform ratings assigned Curlin, the 3-5 morning line favorite in the Woodward, a “134,” a figure that leaves horsemen shaking their heads.
“A 134 is practically off the charts,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. “A 115 is the starting point for Grade 1 horses. He’s one of the best horses we’ve seen in the past 15 or so years, and we are looking forward to taking him on.”
McLaughlin will be saddling the second choice at 3-1 in the Woodward, James. J. Barry’s Divine Park, the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap (Met Mile) winner who, with a little bit of luck, might have been undefeated. Winner of six of his eight starts, the four-year-old Chester House colt was ninth in the Grade 1 Malibu at Santa Anita over an artificial surface he did not care for and then was seventh after breaking through the gate in the Grade 2 General George at Laurel.
“I have a lot of respect for Curlin,” said McLaughlin, who is vying for his first trainer’s title here at the Spa and who will be giving hot jockey Alan Garcia a leg up. “If both of us have a perfect day, he’s better than us. But I am confident we have the best chance to beat him.”
Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, who started the meet off with a bang when he sent out seven-year-old Commentator to win the Grade 1 Whitney, has a different veteran to take on Curlin: Arthur Hancock III’s seven-year-old Wanderin Boy, who was seventh in last year’s Woodward and a winner of a seven-furlong optional claimer here on July 28.
“It would be like bookends,” said Zito, who named Julien Leparoux aboard Wanderin Boy, the 8-1 third choice. “There’s been other trainers who have won the Whitney and the Woodward the same year, but not with two different horses, both of them seven years old.”
One who did score the Whitney-Woodward double is Todd Pletcher, whose Lawyer Ron swept both last year. This year, Pletcher will be saddling A.P. Arrow, who was fourth to Curlin the Dubai World Cup but who in two subsequent starts was sixth in the Grade 1 Suburban and eighth in the Whitney. As well, Pletcher is one of a handful of trainers who has beaten Curlin: in last year’s Belmont Stakes, won by the filly Rags to Riches, and in the Haskell, in which Curlin was third to Pletcher’s Any Given Saturday.
“We're going to go over there and give it our best shot,” said the trainer, who is removing blinkers from A.P. Arrow for this race. “We’re going to hope for the mystique of Saratoga and the `Graveyard of Champions’ … and all that stuff. We need all of those stars to align and all the planets to align and we need everything and then some to go right. He’s a better horse at this stage, but we’ll see. Things happen sometimes.”
Pletcher can verify that things can happen to good horses. He won the Woodward last year with Lawyer Ron, a horse who had won the Whitney earlier in the meet by setting the track record for nine furlongs of 1:46.64. Curlin then beat him by a neck at Belmont Park in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and defeated him again in the slop in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Monmouth Park.
Darley Stables’ Past the Point, winner of an optional claimer here on August 3; Out of Control, saddled by Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, and Dr. D.F.C., who took the overnight Solomon Northup Stakes here August 9, complete the field.
The field for the 55th running of the Grade 1 Woodward:
PP Horse Trainer Jockey Odds
1 A. P. Arrow Todd Pletcher Cornelio Velasquez 20-1
2 Loose Leaf Ken McPeek Eibar Coa 15-1
3 Past the Point Eoin Harty Edgar Prado 15-1
4 Divine Park Kiaran McLaughlin Alan Garcia 3-1
5 Curlin Steve Asmussen Robby Albarado 3-5
6 Dr D.F.C. Rodrigo Ubillo Aldo Arboleda 50-1
7 Out of Control Robert Frankel John Velazquez 12-1
8 Wanderin Boy Nick Zito Julien Leparoux 8-1
All horses carry 126 pounds, under the weight-for-age conditions.
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